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.

Siegfried Sassoon Gallops with a Ghost; Isaac Rosenberg is Still a Harassed Mortal

Sometimes I strive mightily to produce awkward effects of juxtaposition, as if readers always need to be reminded that two very different people were in very different situations, even on the very same day in the very same war! And sometimes the reminder can be more effectively achieved just by allowing the writers’ conditions, rank, and locations to affect their writing–or their ability to even write at all.

Siegfried Sassoon professed, recently, to being in a state of unthinking bliss-carefree and pleasantly dull, happy to have the sturm und drang of protest behind him and to be living the “outdoor” life of physical exertion and no (perceived) ethical and intellectual challenges to cloud his mind. He drills, he hunts…

January 30 (Limerick, Kilfinny Cross) Drove thirteen miles in taxi to meet. A fine, breezy morning, with drifts of sunshine. Rode Sheeby’s little white-faced bay horse (rather lame all day, and slow, but clever jumper)…

Found at 2 o’clock at Durrach and ran down wind to Croome Gorse, through there and over the river at Caherass, straight through the demesne, and on toward Killonehan… he was viewed going into Adare Deer Park, and they picked him up after forty minutes, and killed him in Adare village, in the Police Station!

…Very amusing day and got to know some jolly people.[1]

A jolly day indeed, if rather off-putting to latter-day proponents of animal welfare. But Sassoon is a human being as well as a literary construct, and the historical record shows more elision between his binary selves than his prosy self-representations generally allow He wrote more than a diary, today–he wrote verse, too. And yet this proof of the co-existence of the indoor “writing” Sassoon with the fox hunter is more of a muddying of the waters than a melding of fire and ice. He wrote–but he wrote about fox hunting, and a fox hunting friend:

 

Together

Splashing along the boggy woods all day,
And over brambled hedge and holding clay,
I shall not think of him:
But when the watery fields grow brown and dim,
And hounds have lost their fox, and horses tire,
I know that he’ll be with me on my way
Home through the darkness to the evening fire.

He’s jumped each stile along the glistening lanes;
His hand will be upon the mud-soaked reins;
Hearing the saddle creak,
He’ll wonder if the frost will come next week.
I shall forget him in the morning light;
And while we gallop on he will not speak:
But at the stable-door he’ll say good-night.

 

A hunting poem, and an elegy of sorts–and so therefore a war poem as well. The subject of the poem is surely Gordon Harbord, killed in August, and evidently much on Sassoon’s mind. Harbord had been the most beloved of Sassoon’s hunting friends, and his death, which he learned about while at Craiglockhart, seems to have loomed very large for Sassoon. In Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man Harbord will become Stephen Colwood, and take on the shape of a surrogate brother for Sassoon (his death is moved up to 1915, when Sassoon’s actual brother died) and becoming one of the spurs to “Sherston’s” breakdown and protest.

But all that is to complicate a simple poem, an elegy for a lost friend. Sassoon’s life may be pleasant now, but he comes home to write these thoughts, confirming that even away from the war reminders of its destruction are unavoidable.

 

I don’t know what Isaac Rosenberg would make of a fox hunting elegy. A sickly private in the trenches in winter, he is trying to survive, and to keep himself alive in the memories of his friends and patrons. By writing even a short note he may feel, perhaps, as if he is keeping alive his own sense of himself as a writer. He writes to Gordon Bottomley, today, but can do little else, whatever he might plan or dream…

Dear Mr. Bottomley

I have been in the trenches some time now & it is most awkward to get letters away… I had the Georgian Book sent me & though I had to send it back I had just time to gallop through it & seeing yours made me very anxious to know what has been happening to you…

My address is

Pte I Rosenberg 22311

4 Platoon A. Coy

11th KORL BEF

Im writing this in the line & have no light or paper. There is a lot I’d like to write–

So yes, here a private from the slums looks very different from an independently wealthy subaltern free to hunt several days a week. But I don’t have to do the dirty work of underlining all this with a black pen–the censors took care of that, too: whatever reason Rosenberg gives (after that dash) for not being able to write more, it must have been deemed to be of military value–the next line is struck out by the censor’s pen.

…I have Balzacean schemes suggested this time. I just write this to let you know Im still a harrassed mortal.

IR[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 207.
  2. Liddiard, Poetry out of My Head, 117.

Miners and a Black Book; Max Plowman Hears from Rivers; Siegfried Sassoon Rides the Emerald Isle; Isaac Rosenberg is Not Strong

Two very different publications of today, a century back, are worth noting. The Nation, one of the few periodicals willing to publish “anti-war” poetry, ran Wilfred Owen‘s poem Miners. The poem was written, despite its unusual pararhyme, in a matter of hours, promptly submitted, and is published now only two weeks after the event–a topical and quietly political work, and as such a confirmation of Owen’s complete and Sassoon-influenced departure from his youthful aestheticism.

And The Imperialist, Noel Pemberton-Billing’s histrionic nativist scandal sheet, ran an article claimingthat German intelligence held a “black book” which contained the names of 47,000 British gay men and lesbians who had been blackmailed and compromised. This might be insanity (quite literally, in the case of Pemberton-Billing’s assistant Harold Spencer), but Pemberton-Billing’s ridiculous lies played ably enough on existing hatreds for the political effects to be distressingly real. The Imperialist specialized in anti-German polemic (with virulent anti-Semitism lumped in for good measure) and was prepared to exploit not just homophobia but class resentment, using salacious allegations to get traditional folks all worked up against fancy London types and their immoral goings on, which must of course conceal deep disloyalty to a vague and negatively-defined ideal of British greatness…

So Wilfred Owen has gotten a poem in the paper–and earned two guineas for it–and on the very same day that the gay literary community he has just had the privilege of joining comes under siege.

 

Elsewhere, today, Max Plowman wrote to his close friend Hugh de Selincourt. The letter opens with an apology for not having written sooner–it runs along the lines of the “I wrote the simple letters first” excuse.

…My dear, I feel rather like a snake that has forgotten to shed its skins for the past few years & now begins the healthy business. I didn’t expect my self-assertion to have that effect particularly but it seems to be happening… I see now that preface & my Right to Live (in large measure), & those little topical verses, very much as signs of irritation the snake has with skins which did not fit it. Bitterness comes through low living & I see now that mine was all the more acute because I thought the low living inevitable…

Plowman eventually moves past this high-minded metaphorical mode and writes of reading about bellicose speeches given by leading politicians in both Germany and Britain.

And then it slowly dawned on me that it wasn’t my duty to stand between men with consciences of tanned hide & try & filter the stream of lies & hypocrisy they poured at one another…

In any actual fighting for peace I feel I should now be useless… I’ve got to start more or less where I left off 3 years & more ago & work like a galley slave to catch up.

He has come to see his service as an infantry officer–as A Subaltern on the Somme, in fact–as an unbecoming interlude in the life of a politically aware pacifist. But, of course, he is still an army officer, under arrest and awaiting trial–at least in the loose and philosophical sense of the word, if not necessarily the juridical.

…What shall I tell you about my affairs? …I live in a top room of a large house… & there I have my meals brought me as I don’t want to inflict my necessarily chilling company on the “Mess”, & all day long (subject to conditions) I do just what I damned well please. And this will last I think until next Friday when I go for my ordinary Board. I expect to be put under arrest any day after that… the charge will be “Refusing to obey an order.”

What is to be done? And who might be able to help?

Oh you know I wrote to X——-? He did not reply but evidently sent my letter on to Dr ________, F.R.S. (The Camb. psychological Professor) we were both under at Edinburgh.

We know who this is. I can’t be certain, actually, that X is Sassoon, but it certainly sounds like him. In any case, Sassoon and Plowman shared a doctor who was a Cambridge professor and an FRS–W.H.R. Rivers. Thus it must be Rivers who, as we will read below, is willing to help with Plowman’s “case.” But in what way, exactly? Is this another offer to “cure” a patient by thinking him through the ramifications of his pacifism?

Plowman and Sassoon are both writers, both young officers troubled by all that they have seen. And Plowman was even quite literally shell shocked before being sent to Rivers to be treated. But as that distinction suggests, the differences in the manner and motivation of their pacifist protests are considerable.

______wrote the day I came here saying he was at Hampstead & would like to know if he could be of any use… which is extraordinarily decent of him, don’t you think? If I were to have any trouble with the Medical people he might be an excellent Court of Appeal. He says X—–has returned to duty & is quite happy in it, & of course as X——-merely acted on the question of British war aims he was to be satisfied. A queer half-way house, but I daresay it was useful…[1]

This logic is a bit hard to follow. What is “useful,” to Plowman? Does he want Rivers to help shunt his protest aside, and have it be deemed an after-effect of shell shock? I don’t think so. I think he may want the opposite–but does he imagine, then, that Rivers offers to help him to pacifist martyrdom by asserting his sanity and full recovery from shell shock?

Well, at the very least it’s clear that Plowman is not at the stage where he desires any sort of half-measure. He won’t fight any more, and his objection is not on the score of war aims, a minor detail in the monstrosity of war without end…

 

Speaking of Siegfried Sassoon, as I think we probably have been, it’s quite true that he is back on duty and “quite happy:”

January 26

Motored with two Irishmen to a place eighteen miles from Cork—Roore’s Bridge—to meet of the Muskerry Hounds. A grey, windy day, southwest wind. Rode a chestnut of J. Rohan’s—good performer. A poor day’s hunting, but very enjoyable. Fine country—along the River Lee–a wide, rain-swollen stream, flowing down long glens and reaches. The whole landscape grey-green and sad and lonely. Ireland is indeed a haunted, ancient sort of land. It goes deep into one’s heart.[2]

 

Finally, today, another writer both slightly connected to all of the turmoil of literary London–he has long been in touch with, and occasionally helped by, Eddie Marsh–and very far away from it. Isaac Rosenberg writes to remind his old patron that he still lives, however miserably, and that he still reads, and writes. After a long bout of illness, Rosenberg is back in the trenches, and it is not going well.

My dear Marsh,

I have been in topsy turveydom since I last saw you and have not been able to write. Even now it is in the extremest difficulties that Im writing this. I wanted to talk about the Georgian Book which I had sent over to me but have not had time to more than glance through. I liked J. C. Squire poem about the ‘House’ enormously and all his other poems. Turners are very beautiful and Sassoon has power. Masefield seemed rather commonplace, but please don’t take my judgment at anything because I have hardly looked at them. I am back in the trenches which are terrible now. We spend most of our time pulling each other out of the mud. I am not fit at all now and am more in the way than any use. You see I appear in excellent health and a doctor will make no distinction between health and strength. I am not strong…

Yours sincerely

I Rosenberg[3]

Rosenberg does not ask, but it is unlikely that there are any strings near enough to Marsh’s hand (through Winston Churchill’s) to pull him all the way out of the trenches…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 93-4.
  2. Diaries, 206.
  3. Collected Works, 320-1.

Robert Graves Rattles a Poetic Sabre at Siegfried Sassoon; Ivor Gurney on Edward Thomas, but not Marion Scott

One sign of the strain in the friendship between Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon is that this letter sounds less like half of an epistolary dialogue than like a two-handed conversation between Graves and himself.

11 January 1918

My dear Sassons

I’m sure if you bit old Flood’s ear nicely you could get leave to come to the wedding. Should be rather a rag as all the best sort of people will be there: no relations but a very few will be allowed to come on after the ceremony to drink champagne at the studio in Appletree Yard, only the elect people of God will be there… The date is fixed for January 23rd: meanwhile I have been to see Sir James Fowler re chests and so on and he says it’s no good my going on active service though my lungs are soundish. Says I’ll break down. So I stay back I suppose: it seems rather silly after all my sabre rattling: still I suppose it’s good news for Nancy…

I have just written a poem that Robbie says is a masterpiece. It seemed all right when I casually examined it the morning afterwards… I think it’s rather a hit… Called ‘The God Poetry.’..

Love

Robert.[1]

Does Graves suspect that Sassoon will not exert himself to come to the wedding? Wangling leave from Ireland might be a bit difficult even for a not-recent-ex-protester/hospitalized officer, and Sassoon has shown no inclination to want to come…

It’s tempting, then, to read Graves’s new ode to the power of poetry as a reminder to Sassoon of what binds them together–or should bind them together, in Graves’s view of things. But it’s not clear if he sent a copy of the poem with the letter or only mentioned it, to dangle before Graves. In any case, it can also read as an example of how different–despite their friendship and the mutual enthusiasm of 1916 to mid-1917–their approaches to poetry actually are.

Now I begin to know at last,
These nights when I sit down to rhyme,
The form and measure of that vast
God we call Poetry, he who stoops
And leaps me through his paper hoops
A little higher every time.

 

Tempts me to think I’ll grow a proper
Singing cricket or grass-hopper
Making prodigious jumps in air
While shaken crowds about me stare
Aghast, and I sing, growing bolder
To fly up on my master’s shoulder
Rustling the thick stands of his hair.

 

He is older than the seas,
Older than the plains and hills,
And older than the light that spills
From the sun’s hot wheel on these.
He wakes the gale that tears your trees,
He sings to you from window sills.

 

At you he roars, or he will coo,
He shouts and screams when hell is hot,
Riding on the shell and shot.
He smites you down, he succours you,
And where you seek him, he is not.

 

To-day I see he has two heads
Like Janus—calm, benignant, this;
That, grim and scowling: his beard spreads
From chin to chin: this god has power
Immeasurable at every hour:
He first taight lovers how to kiss,
He brings down sunshine after shower,
Thunder and hate are his also,
He is YES and he is NO.

 

The black beard spoke and said to me,
‘Human fraility though you be,
Yet shout and crack your whip, be harsh!
They’ll obey you in the end:
Hill and field, river and marsh
Shall obey you, hop and skip
At the terrour of your whip,
To your gales of anger bend.’

 

The pale beard spoke and said in turn
‘True: a prize goes to the stern,
But sing and laugh and easily run
Through the wide airs of my plain,
Bathe in my waters, drink my sun,
And draw my creatures with soft song;
They shall follow you along
Graciously with no doubt or pain.’

 

Then speaking from his double head
The glorious fearful monster said
‘I am YES and I am NO,
Black as pitch and white as snow,
Love me, hate me, reconcile
Hate with love, perfect with vile,
So equal justice shall be done
And life shared between moon and sun.
Nature for you shall curse or smile:
A poet you shall be, my son.’

 

While we are on the subjects of poetry, paeans thereto, and the mutual appreciation of war poets, Ivor Gurney wrote a very long letter today, a century back, to his friend and patroness Marion Scott. After the initial pleasantries, we’ll skip to the most relevant part–the part that puts his judgment years ahead of Graves’s:

11 January 1918

My Dear Friend: Your gift came today, received with pure pleasure and sincere thanks. It looks most fascinating, and will be read as soon as possible. The song is ready written out but must be tested on some piano.

And now I’m going through your long and most interesting letter…

Yes, Edward Thomas is a very poetic soul indeed, and English at the core. Please write about them. Haines knew him intimately, and talks of him a lot…

Interestingly, Scott seems to have tossed her own poems into the midst of a wide-ranging conversation on English poetry. I don’t know what they were like, good, bad, decent, or indifferent. As for Gurney, though he puts up a strong critical barrage, it proves to be a distraction or demonstration–he clearly doesn’t want to tell her what he thinks, which does not bode well…

About your work I am going to be simply honest. I don’t know what to say, and that’s true. Should you go on writing? Well, I care only for Music of strong individuality… It is the same with verse — I care only to hear what I could not do myself; I like what is beyond me.

But as to the use of making a body of English music there is no doubt, whether it has genius or not; but I, who am paralysed by doubt, before writing, as to whether it is worth while or no, cannot be expected to give advice. Literature? Now, could I — could I give any opinion? Can’t you ask Mr Dunhill, who must have read some things of the kind you mean? I am simply in the dark—dont know.

Consider what l am — the semi-invalid who tried to write and the fairly fit man totally out of touch with everything!!!

Your influence may be strong for good anyway, but you have a perfect right to please yourself, not ask hopeless, fed-up, people like myself…

I feel ashamed to close now, but even this must be paid for by writing illicitly tonight after Lights Out… It’s worth it.

You are a good friend indeed. Letters are not here what they are in France, but gratitude (I like G K Cs definition) has not become so dead in me that I am not glad to get your warm hearted vivid letters…

Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 91.
  2. War Letters, 238-40.

Richard Aldington’s New Directions; Carroll Carstairs’ Improbable Password

Richard Aldington has been home on leave, and busy–not so much with his new officer’s identity as with the early stages of an extramarital affair with Dorothy Yorke, a young member of the circle now centered on D.H. Lawrence and H.D., Aldington’s wife. Aldington is writing quite a bit, as well, poems which reflect not only his profound self regard and far shallower talent but also the doubly overheated atmosphere of a soldier home on leave and a man in the grips of a new sexual passion. Today, a century back, he sent some of the poems–not war poems, and not particularly modernist, but quite sexually explicit–to his American patroness and publisher, Amy Lowell. And then there is the matter of last year’s war poems, a few of which we have looked at here…

2 January 1918
44 Mecklenburgh Square,
London, England.

My dear Amy,

Hilda sent me on your charming letter this morning and I was most happy to get it. We had your cheery cable on Christmas day—I was at home—and were delighted that you had thought of us. After I passed my examinations I had nearly a month’s leave. It was a wonderful time, so much was compressed into those few weeks. It was marvellous after those other days.

I have my commission now and am expecting to be back in the trenches in a month or six weeks. So probably I’ll be gone before I can hear from you again. I will try and send you just a word before I go. Unhappily, I feel I mustn’t send you any details about my military life—the rules are very stringent and I don’t want to say anything I shouldn’t…

I’m afraid that’s all I can tell you—after the war I’ll spin you more soldier’s yarns than you’ll care to hear!

I am thinking of collecting all my war poems—I have about 60 or 70—into a book. Do you think the U.S.A. would care for them? They are not popular—I mean they are bitter, anguish-stricken, realistic, not like Brooke or Noyes or anybody like that. They are stern truth, and I have hesitated about publishing them…

There is a lot of gamesmanship here. New officers may be more inclined to follow the letter of the law, but his zealous secrecy about not much at all (he’s not even in France) should set Lowell’s eyes rolling, and his aw-shucks “hesitations” as well.

Now for the name-dropping:

I am translating Anacreon in camp—I find I can’t do really good work in a camp, so I am doing these light Greek things, just to keep the “feel” of literature. Great poetry—Shelley and Euripides and Dante—moves me so terribly that I cannot bear it. I feel choked. For this reason I had to give up those burning passionate poems of Meleager. They left me unnerved & unstrung. I am reading a little Dante, but only a very, very little each day—it exhausts me with emotion. He understands so wonderfully the piercing passion of love—the mystic exaltation which is prolonged beyond the contact of the flesh. Do you remember the two cantos towards the end of the Purgatorio where he  meets Bia after those years of absence and where Virgil leaves him? It seems to me to put most modern poetry utterly out of count. It is like Plato’s Symposium, but more tortured, more like ourselves in its bitterness & intensity.

Aldington has been very busy, and much of this–the poems as well as the translations–will soon be published. But his poems lately have been very unlike his earlier ones, at once besotted hand-wavingly dramatic in a manner not quite befitting the cerebral Modernism favored by Lowell. A single stanza of a poem written this month, a century back, should give the rough idea:

Go your ways, you women, pass and forget us,
We are sick of blood, of the taste and sight of it;
Go now to those who bleed not and to the old men,
They will give you beautiful love in answer!
But we, we are alone, we are desolate,
Thinning the blood of our brothers with weeping,
Crying for our brothers, the men we fought with,
Crying out, mourning them, alone with our dead ones;
Praying that our eyes may be blinded
Lest we go mad in a world of scarlet,
Dripping, oozing from the veins of our brothers.

Faced with this, as well as poems clearly about Aldington’s affair with Yorke, Lowell will take the unusual step of writing to H.D. (i.e. Aldington’s wife Hilda Doolittle) to ask her advice…

 

And after all that, here is a very strange little anecdote from Carrol Carstairs

I was left behind until the new unit had taken over the billets and found them “all correct.”

It was dark when I left for Arras. Nothing moved on the road. I had to walk—five or six or seven miles? A frequent look over my shoulder as I stumbled on revealed nothing. I moved on automatically, breathing hard and painfully. I would scarcely know when I had reached Arras. There wouldn’t be many lights. Interminable! How could anything take so long. What? Was I asleep? Where am I? Oh, yes, Arras. I must get to Arras. God, but I feel groggy.

Outlying houses, like stragglers, appeared in the gloom, and then I was in Arras itself, walking the streets of a town empty of life but for a private soldier or two. It stood only partially destroyed, but the Hotel de Ville with its fine Gothic façade and the cathedral were among the ruins. I don’t know why I thought of this as I sought Battalion Headquarters. The word periwinkle also suddenly occurred without my associating the name with its meaning.

“Periwinkle!” I said out loud. “Periwinkle!” I announced as I entered the officers’ mess.

“Periwinkle?” questioned Alec Agar-Robartes.

“Well, possibly not,” I replied. . . .[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A Generation Missing, 148-9. According to a note on page 235, this was tonight/tomorrow, a century back.

Duff Cooper, Terribly False; Robert Graves Passes Judgment

Today’s theme will be the making fun of respectable young men who, though endearing in some contexts, can make–and write–asses of themselves. Cads!

First, Duff Cooper, the more-or-less fiancé of Diana Manners. Three days ago, all was well.

Spent the afternoon and evening with Diana. She said she would certainly marry me if we had enough money…

I am happy only with her. I dined with a large party at Venetia’s and lost £125 at chemin de fer.

Clever with money, isn’t he?

And today, Cooper is off to a house party with an old flame, Rosemary Leveson-Gower. I have no idea if Duff realizes that among his potential rivals for this young heiress is the Prince of Wales, who is in love with her and seeking his father’s permission to marry her. (Which he will not get–but that is another story.)

But there’s a fellow named Michael Herbert along as well:

I found myself falling in love with her again and feeling jealous of Michael…

After tea I had a long talk with Rosemary and told her I loved her. She said I mustn’t–that she was very fond of me but could not be in love with me. I felt terribly false to Diana, to whom I write daily and who writes beautifully to me.

So ends 1917–which has been I think the least happy year that I have lived. Funnily enough I am thinking of Rosemary now as I was this time last year although I have hardly thought of her at all in the interval. But I know that she will really never mean anything to me–and that the one thing which is important in my life and which becomes increasingly so is my love for Diana and hers for me.[1]

Confusing, isn’t he?

 

And then there is Robert Graves, who often shows himself to be honest if clumsy, and well-meaning if gaffe-prone. And then, at other times, he is, purposefully, both dishonest and deft, mischievous and precise.

This is a little of both, isn’t it…

My Dear Eddie,

I wonder what you’ve thought of my silence? I am awfully sorry but there was been a good reason. I’ve been busy arranging wedlock, with Nancy Nicholson, daughter of William Nicholson the painter… Will send you a formal invitation. Have been also very busy with Fairies and Fusiliers which has been as favourably reviewed as I hoped, and also for the last two months, nearly, have been in charge of a detachment of 600 fusilers and 80 officers up here, when the rest of my battalion suddenly moved off to Ireland.

Having finished tooting his own horn, Graves deigns to compliment Eddie Marsh as well:

Many thanks for Georgian Poetry. It’s a great success…

And now back to his own ambitions:

Eddie, I am just beginning to feel that I know what I’m getting at and in this next year of 1918, if I’m spared, I hope to satisfy the expectations you’ve had of me since I was a sixteen-year-older at Charterhouse, by doing some work of really lasting value.

George Mallory,[2] as my oldest surviving friend who first introduced me to mountains and, through you to modern poetry, my two greatest interests next to Nancy and my regiment, is going to be my best man on the 23rd.

Last of all, Graves–whose reference to his early, less-than-momentous association with Marsh reads like an attempt to cut the line in front of Siegfried Sassoon, who was much closer to Marsh and more influenced by his patronage–tries to take credit not just for the poetic production of another man, but also for his friend’s “discovery” of him. Still, at last we have the name of the most promisingly powerful of the young war poets making its way to one of the most influential patrons and publishers of contemporary poetry.

Sassons is amazingly well again and now he’s passed for France again, quite happy. I have a new poet for you, just discovered, one Wilfred Owen: this is a real find not a sudden lo here! or lo there! which unearths an Edward Eastaway or a Vernede, but the real thing; when we’ve educated him a trifle more. R.N., S.S., and myself are doing it.

Actually, claiming the discovery of Owen was only the penultimate offense of this deeply, almost goofily caddish letter. R.E. Vernède and Eastaway were both killed in April, but while Vernède was a poet of no great merit whose “war poems” will not stand the test of time, Edward Eastaway is Edward Thomas. True, Graves is judging only from a handful of poems, and many other readers will miss the complexity and gentle precision of Thomas’s first published work–but, in the sureness of his vision and the subtle interpenetration of observation, thought, and verbal music, he is a far greater poet than young Graves will ever be. With Owen the comparison is easier in some ways, and perhaps favorable. In other ways, Thomas still stands far above his contemporaries, no matter what the 1918 he never saw holds in store for them…

Best love,

Robert[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 62-3.
  2. Yes, that one.
  3. In Broken Images, 90.

Wilfred Owen Churns Out Six, Isaac Rosenberg Writes “In War;” Frederic Manning Resigns His Commission; Ford Madox Hueffer Meets the Next Woman

Isaac Rosenberg wrote to Gordon Bottomley today, a century back, a letter in much the same vein as his recent missive to G.M. Trevelyan–but this one includes a new poem, composed during Rosenberg’s hospitalization for influenza:

Dear Mr. Bottomley

I enclose a poem Ive just written–its sad enough I know–but one can hardly write a war poem & be anything else. It happened to one of our chaps poor fellow–and I’ve tried to write it…

I do hope for that time to come when I shall be free to read and write in my own time; there will be the worries again of earning a livelyhood; painting is a very unsatisfactory business; but I can teach–though after the life I have lived in the army I don’t think it would matter much to me what I did. I will write again soon.

Yours sincerely, Isaac Rosenberg.

 

In War

Fret the nonchalant noon
With your spleen
Or your gay brow,
For the motion of your spirit
Ever moves with these.

When day shall be too quiet,
Deaf to you
And your dumb smile,
Untuned air shall lap the stillness
In the old space for your voice–

The voice that once could mirror
Remote depths
Of moving being,
Stirred by responsive voices near,
Suddenly stilled for ever.

No ghost darkens the places
Dark to One;
But my eyes dream,
And my heart is heavy to think
How it was heavy once.

In the old days when death Stalked the world
For the flower of men,
And the rose of beauty faded
And pined in the great gloom,

One day we dug a grave:
We were vexed
With the sun’s heat.
We scanned the hooded dead:
At noon we sat and talked.

How death had kissed their eyes
Three dread noons since,
How human art won
The dark soul to flicker
Till it was lost again:

And we whom chance kept whole–
But haggard,
Spent-were charged
To make a place for them who knew
No pain in any place.

The good priest came to pray;
Our ears half heard,
And half we thought
Of alien things, irrelevant;
And the heat and thirst were great.

The good priest read: ‘I heard.
Dimly my brain
Held words and lost. . . .
Sudden my blood ran cold. . . .
God! God! It could not be.

He read my brother’s name; I sank–
I clutched the priest.
They did not tell me it was he
Was killed three days ago.

What are the great sceptred dooms
To us, caught
In the wild wave
We break ourselves on them,
My brother, our hearts and years.[1]

 

Wilfred Owen, too, has been very productive, even while meeting new poet-friends and gallivanting with local ergotherapeutic acquaintances. Owen is very busy, but not front-line-soldier busy. And, although technically still hospitalized, he is physically healthy and psychologically something close to… serviceable, as it were. It is Owen’s good fortune that instead of writing to patrons and entrusting his manuscripts to the mails, he has an influential friend at his elbow and need only report on his progress in chatty letters to his mother…

…I wrote quite six poems last week, chiefly in Edinburgh; and when I read them to S.S. over a private tea in his room this afternoon, he came round from his first advice of deferred publishing, and said I must hurry up & get what is ready typed. He & his friends will get Heinemann to produce for me. Now it is my judgment alone that I must screw up to printing pitch…

Yours ever W.E.O. x[2]

 

So we’ve had two writers living the writing life: writing, networking, writing. But is that, really, the whole story? These are poets: where’s the trauma and the poisonous, self-destructive drinking? Where’s the selfish, relationship-destroying sexual unrest? Come on!

Well, first we have Frederic Manning. A sympathetic Medical Board forgave him his latest alcohol-related breakdown, and assigned him to light duty without blaming him for his conduct. But this may have been a deal, a way for both Manning and his superiors to avoid disgrace. He’s still drinking, and today, a century back,

he formally requested that he be “allowed to resign my commission on the grounds of ill health. Owing to nervousness and constant insomnia I feel that I am unable to carry out competently my duties as an officer.”[3]

There’s honor there, or an attempt at an honorable exit before another inevitable failure.

 

Ford Madox Hueffer, like Manning, had been shelled on the Somme. And like Manning, it’s not quite clear to what extent his military experiences exacerbated underlying personality issues. He has consulted the eminent Dr. Henry Head in recent months, and remains something between terminally melodramatic and clinically paranoid.

But though it no doubt made things worse, Ford can’t blame all his bad behavior on the war. He and Violet Hunt, who have for years considered themselves married (Ford being unable to obtain an English divorce from his wife), are… on the rocks. Hueffer has found himself to be impotent, and came up with a brilliantly original excuse: it wasn’t his problem, it was hers.

Despite writing in her diary that “He is not sane,” Hunt nevertheless decided to humor her pseudo-husband’s contention that “he could have her ‘through another woman.'”

This seems less like one of those times when modern bohemians are on the cutting edge of sexual experimentation than  one of those times when men serve up ridiculous lines and get away with it, perhaps because the woman in question is cornered and feels that she has no better option. Hunt had recently met Stella Bowen, an attractive 24-year-old Australian painter, and she decided to invite Bowen and her roommate Phyllis Reid to stay the weekend when Ford was next due home on leave.

So today, a century back, Ford–forty-three and not in the best physical or mental condition, met Bowen and was evidently attracted to her. Nothing happened tonight–he and Hunt argued after another unsuccessful sexual encounter of their own–but the plan to have Hunt tempt him “through” another woman will end in disaster. Or it will be all too successful, depending on how one looks at it. In any case, Ford and Bowen will soon be conducting an affair…

Something rather similar will show up, in due time, in the Parade’s End tetralogy, where the love between Tietjens and Valentine Wannop is presented as pure and powerful rather than sordid and grim. Eschew biographical criticism though perhaps we should, it also looks every bit like a fantasy of female devotion concocted by an aging, frustrated novelist…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head and Heart, 112-5. I have used instead of Liddiard's transcript a later version of the poem, with few changes other than corrections and a switch of old-fashioned pronouns for modern.
  2. Collected Letters, 502-3.
  3. Marwil, Frederic Manning, An Unfinished Life, 185.
  4. Saunders, Ford Madox Ford, A Dual Life, II, 38-9.

More Bad News for Diana Manners; Wilfred Owen is Perfectly Aware; Isaac Rosenberg Keeps Up His Correspondence

Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother once again, today, a century back, still dwelling on the momentous meeting-of-the-poets five days before. I have remarked many times in the last few months on Owen’s growing confidence and rapidly burgeoning poetic skill, but this letter makes something else clear: he is also rising to the challenge of being befriended by men with loftier social backgrounds and much more experience with professional literary friendships. He is very grateful to Sassoon, but he has no wild illusions about Sassoon’s somewhat condescending view of him. And now, it seems, he has Robert Graves figured out as well.

Thursday, 18 October, 1917 Craiglockhart

My own Mother,

I think I described to you my meeting with Robert Graves, and how S.S. said of him: he is a man one likes better after he has been with one.

So it turns out with my case. You will be amused with his letter. He carried away a Poem, or was carried away with it, without my knowledge. It was only in a Draft State, & I was perfectly aware of all the solecisms…

Always your W.E.O. x[1]

“Perfectly aware…” This could be defensive–petty, even, since Sassoon and Graves both believe that Graves can help improve Owen’s work. Or it can simply be confident: “I can handle these guys, and accept their criticism on certain points without yielding entirely to their influence…”

 

Diana Manners has been a regular witness to the drumbeat of loss among the socially fashionable Eton-Oxford-Grenadier Guards set. Today marks another such loss, and it’s also the occasion of a rare (and terrifically drawn) appearance by one of our original contributors

Arlington Street 18 October 1917

Jack Pixley has been killed. It upsets me a lot. My endurance is weakening. Osbert told me as he often does — a great ill-omened bird — in the middle of the opera, and I have come home and cried and been beastly to Mother on the subject of my lovers, which O shame! comforted me. I must try and be better. At what?

It’s an oblique connection, but these losses and this way of handling them suggests something that Manners hasn’t really explained: why, after the loss of so many friends and lovers, she has decided to commit herself to Duff Cooper. More on that anon, of course, but I don’t want to let this Osbert Sitwell sighting to pass by unnoticed.[2]

Sitwell is such a strange figure, here: “great ill-omened bird” so nicely captures his preening and his selfish ghoulishness (as well as something of the Sitwell physiognomy), but it doesn’t explain anything of his military career or his artistic merits. He straddles the divide between “important writer” and”important player in the art world,” mooving in the highest circles but also affecting a hard-charging Modernism and a willingness to find poetic talent off the beaten path. His wartime military career, which he barely touches on in his autobiographies, is something of a cipher. Without disgrace or disablement, very few young officers have seen as little action in recent years as he has… but it’s hard to tell just what sort of privilege or good fortune has kept him from the war’s grind.  More on Sitwell too, in coming months…

 

Finally, today, Isaac Rosenberg–someone who could profit from the notice of an Osbert Sitwell–is working whatever connections he has. Much like Ivor Gurney he is making the most of his time in bed, which in Rosenberg’s case is in the influenza ward of a field hospital in France. He is writing poetry, but he also sees the necessity of maintaining the few tenuous relationships he has with possible patrons, in this case, G.M. Trevelyan:

My sister sent your letter on to me here. I liked your letter and very much your little boys verses. ‘And the wind
blows so violent’ takes me most; I hope he will always go direct to nature like that and not get too mixed up with artifice when he has more to say about nature, I brought your play back with me but Im afraid its lost now. I lent it to a friend in the Batt but that day I fell sick and was sent down here to hospital…

Rosenberg is always careful to make the effort to read whoever it is he is corresponding with, no matter how different their style from his own. Getting away with not doing the reading is, alas, another privilege he can’t risk…

Your play was all I read at home—I read it in bed—the rest of my time I spent very restlessly—going from one place to another and seeing and talking to as many people as I could. G. Bottomley sent me nearly all the poems in the annual before so I knew them. ‘Atlantis’ is an immense poem—and as good as anything else he has done…

Yours sincerely

Isaac Rosenberg[3]

We will read one of Rosenberg’s own efforts in a few days’ time.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 500-1.
  2. Autobiography, 157.
  3. Collected Works, 356.

Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen Link Up–A New Spat and a New Friendship; Owen’s “Disabled,” and Isaac Rosenberg’s Simultaneous Prequel, “Girl to a Soldier”

Robert Graves spent the night on the train from London to Edinburgh. Arriving at Craiglockhart, today, a century back, he found Siegfried Sassoon in a bad mood, fed up with his intolerable Theosophist roommate (although it is unclear whether the man’s relentless Panglossianism, the actual tenets of his pseudo-faith, or merely his baroque shenanigans with English diction are the real cause of Sassoon’s ire). But Sassoon’s troubles are deeper, probably: after long weeks working with Rivers, and then a long break while Rivers himself was on sick leave, Sassoon is beginning to be convinced that regardless of the rightness of his cause–his protest, that is–there is no ethically acceptable course for himself but to rejoin the men he protested for, and put himself once more in harm’s way.

After all, for how long can one write and golf and complain when one’s friends (not to mention the soldiers who, by all accounts, respected Sassoon and would not fare as well under most other subalterns) are going back to war?

For a little while longer, evidently. Sassoon is most stubborn when others might want to give him a nudge. Even though Graves took the night train to see him, Sassoon couldn’t be bothered to wait, and called in a subordinate (of sorts) to entertain his guest.

 

Biography can be a sweeping, powerful genre, filled with insights into life and history and the human condition. But it’s also, fundamentally, an assemblage of interesting tit-bits. And here’s a good one: Wilfred Owen only became friendly with Robert Graves because this very morning, a century back, Sassoon would not, by Jove, be stayed from a round of golf, no matter how many friends-and-poets want to spend the morning with him. Owen appreciates the strange gesture of selfish generosity:

On Sat, I met Robert Graves (see last poem of O.H.) for Sassoon, whom nothing could keep from his morning’s golf; & took Graves over to the Course when he arrived. He is a big, rather plain fellow, the last man on earth apparently capable of the extraordinary, delicate fancies in his books.

No doubt he thought me a slacker sort of sub. S.S. when they were together showed him my longish war-piece ‘Disabled’ (you haven’t seen it) & it seems Graves was mightily impressed, and considers me a kind of Find!

No thanks. Captain Graves! I’ll find myself in due time.

So, yes, although he has just met another impressive published poet, not to mention a man, however gawky, from a literary family, with a Public School behind him and Oxford ahead (should he survive)–a man so esteemed of Sassoon that he is the addressee of several poems–Owen is able to puff out his chest and hold his head high. He might accept more friendship, but he doesn’t seem to be in need of any more mentors or patrons (though, of course, in the professional sense he very much is). Nor does he: “Disabled” is not one of Owen’s more subtle pieces, nor does it have that compression and swift, quiet musicality of some of his best poems. But it is direct, and very, very sad:

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.
                            *        *        *        *        *
About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,—
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,
All of them touch him like some queer disease.
                            *        *        *        *        *
There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.
                            *        *        *        *        *
One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts.
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of, all their guilt,
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.
                            *        *        *        *        *
Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.
                            *        *        *        *        *
Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

 

A good poem, terrible in its lingering agony.

But we were in the middle of a letter marked by Owen’s high spirits and new confidence. So: Owen is flattered by Graves’s compliments, and he values Sassoon very highly–esteems him, even loves him in some sense(s)–but he is his own poet now, and not so smitten that he doesn’t see the condescension and inequality of their relationship:

I think it a rather precious exhibition of esteem that S.S. lends me the MSS. of his next book. On the other hand, when I pointed out a quotation from Shakespere that I intended for my Frontispiece, he collared it by main force, & copied it out for himself![1]

 

Let’s return to Sassoon, and to what he is avoiding. And let’s give him his due as a thinker: he is slow to decide and easily influenced on the way to decision, but he is bullish and not easily swayed once underway, less brilliant than several of our young poets, but not nearly as plodding as he portrays himself in the proper-person autobiographies.

The problem is not what to do–he can hardly wait out an indefinite war as an asymptomatic victim of its neuroses, and he will not accept a sham permanent disability–but how to explain his about-face, how to justify it to himself as well as to others.

Graves, for instance, hates the war and fights on, but his explanations are not satisfactory to Sassoon:

It doesn’t matter what’s the cause.
What wrong they say we’re righting,
A curse for treaties, bonds and laws.
When we’re to do the fighting!
And since we lads are proud and true,
What else remains to do?

 

Graves generally styles himself as a bit of a rebel, but he is conventional, at least, in the fact that his pride in serving well–and in serving with well-respected units of a proud old Regiment–is a central facet of his war experience. Sassoon can’t object to this, exactly, but he also can’t express his loyalty this simplistically.

His irritation with Graves, however, may have relatively little to do with poetic expressions of dissent. He may be annoyed at another aspect of what could be seen as either immaturity or commendably heedless devotion. Not only is Graves fighting on with only the most conventional not-reasoning-why as his excuse, but he is (conventionally) besotted with a young woman, one whose outspokenness and enthusiasms (feminism, the literature of childhood) are hardly to Sassoon’s taste.[2]

There are worse things in the world than differences of opinions, friendly spats, and petulant devotion to previously planned rounds of golf, especially when they conspire to spark new friendships. Whatever the initial impressions that Owen and Graves garnered of each other, they will be friends, now, to the benefit of both. If Graves seems an unsuitable mentor he will still a very useful reader. And Owen, like most poets in the course of making leaps and bounds, makes good use of the criticism his work-in-progress receives.

 

But there are other poets not in Scotland. Isaac Rosenberg, for instance, is in France, where he recently returned from leave and promptly fell ill with influenza. One slim benefit of this dangerous illness is the ability to catch up on his correspondence…

Dear Mr. Bottomley

When I returned from my holiday I as taken sick and sent down the line. So I can write to you more leisurely than before. When I was in England I felt too restless to write or read…

Rosenberg then confides that he purchased a book of Bottomley’s, and proceeds to be assiduously complimentary of the work, as well as concerned about his mentor’s health–this from a sick, weak man who, if he survives the ‘flu, will be sent back into the line. But Rosenberg’s deferential attitude never falls all the way into obsequiousness. His leave was emotionally confusing (as of course it must be, after a first long experience of the trenches), but despite the feelings of dislocation his confidence is high:

I don’t knew whether you sent that photo you promised… but I am looking forward to seeing it very much. If ever I get the chance I will remind you of your promise to sit for me–if I still have the skill and power to draw. I wrote a small poem I’ll enclose, I may now be able to think about my unicorn although so many things happening puts all ideas our of ones head.

Yours sincerely,

I Rosenberg

The poem he included was this early draft of “Girl To A Soldier On Leave,” which makes, I now realize, a rather haunting companion–too late, or too early–to “Disabled.” Sex and death and fear ans suffering are all hand-in-hand, today…

 

Girl To A Soldier

I love you – Titan lover,
My own storm days Titan.
Greater than the sons of Zeus,
I know whom I should choose.

Pallid days, arid & wan
Tied your soul fast.
Babel cities smoky tops
Bore down on your growth
Vulturelike… What were you?
But a word in the brain’s ways
Or the sleep of Circe’s swine.
One gyve holds you yet.

Love! You love me, your eyes
Have looked through death at mine.
You have tempted a grave too much.
I let you – I repine.[3]

 

And, finally,–and just so we can get all five of the most famous surviving war poets into one post–let’s have a quote from the War Diary of the 11th Royal Sussex, for today, a century back:

Orders to move on 14th received. Party with Lieutenant Blunden reconnoitres camp near Vierstraat.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 499.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 185-6.
  3. Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head, 110-12.

Edmund Blunden Behind the Heroics; Siegfried Sassoon’s Editorial Impression on Wilfred Owen’s Anthem

Edmund Blunden missed his battalion’s last tour in the front lines of the Salient, as he returned from a signalling course only to be kept with the reserve. But…

This time I was wanted; my horse was sent back, and the Adjutant, Lewis, told me to go up immediately to the new front with him. No one knew, except in the vaguest form, what the situation was, or where it was.

Suddenly, therefore, I was plucked forth from my comparative satisfaction into a wild adventure. Lewis, a reticent man, hurried along, for the afternoon sun already gave warning, and to attempt to find our position after nightfall would have been madness. First of all he led his little party to our old familiar place, Observatory Ridge, and Sanctuary Wood, where we expected those once solid trenches Hedge Street and Canada Street; never was a transformation more surprising. The shapeless Ridge had lost every tree; the brown hummock, burst and clawed
up, was traversed by no trenches. Only a shallow half-choked ditch stood for Hedge Street or Canada Street, with the entrance to the dugouts there in danger of being buried altogether…

The eye was hurt with this abrupt skeleton of isolation. But farther off against the sunset one saw the hills beyond Mount Kemmel, and the deep and simple vision of Nature’s health and human worthiness again beckoned in the windmills resting there.

But Blunden will not be in the very front: with his new signalling expertise, he will be behind the fighting companies, coordinating communications from the headquarters dugouts, which are

…a set of huge square pillboxes on a bluff, which the low-shot light caused to appear steep and big.

This would bring us up to today, a century back,[,ref]See the War Diary of the 11th Royal Sussex, page 101 of the available pdf.[/ref] and Blunden now cedes the stage to the man of the hour.

What the companies in the forward craters experienced I never heard in detail. Their narrative would make mine seem petty and ridiculous. The hero was Lindsay Clarke… He took charge of all fighting, apparently, and despite being blown off his feet by shells, and struck about the helmet with shrapnel, and otherwise physically harassed, he was ubiquitous and invincible. While Clarke was stalking round the line in his great boots, poor Burgess in a pillbox just behind was wringing his hands in excess of pity, and his headquarters was full of wounded men. With him sat one Andrews, a brilliant young officer, not of our battalion, carrying on some duty of liaison with brigade headquarters. But as even we hardly ever had certain contact with him, his lot was not a happy one.

With this ominous note we will leave Blunden and return to Blighty, but Blunden’s is praise of Clarke is emphatically ratified by the ordinarily staid Battalion War Diary:

Capt. Clark counterattacked on our own front & gave the enemy no chance, running out into No Man’s Land to meet him after which he safeguarded our left flank by clearing the Germans from a dugout on the road. Our front therefore remained intact. Enemy’s artillery was of unprecedented violence and our casualties were heavy.

 

At Craiglockhart, near Edinburgh, Wilfred Owen produced another chatty and upbeat letter to his mother today, a century back–but with one crucial difference. After the news of Edinburgh society dinners, boy scout meetings and guest lectures of various sorts (ergotherapy in action!) comes this:

I am to be boarded today, and am waiting to be called in at any moment. Dr. Brock says I shall be given an extension.

I had one horrid night since I last wrote.

I send you my two best war Poems.

Sassoon supplied the title ‘Anthem’: just what I meant it to be….

Will write soon again. Your very own Wilfred x[1]

Given both the battle in Flanders and our dependence on Owen’s letters for actual dates, we have heard little of what Owen and Sassoon are up to in their writing and editing sessions. But it is now clear that the student has hurtled past the master.

While Owen, waiting for that medical board, enclosed “Anthem for Doomed Youth” in a letter to his mother, Sassoon was writing to Robbie Ross, bitterly mocking his new roomate in what only pretends to pass itself off as humor:

I hear an RWF friend of mine has had one arm amputated and will probably lose the other. As he was very keen on playing the piano this seems a little hard on him, but no doubt he will be all the better in the end. At least the Theosophist thinks so.

Love from Siegfried

Did you see my poem in the Cambridge Magazine for September 22?[2]

Sassoon is alerting Ross to the fact that he has just published “Editorial Impressions:”

He seemed so certain “all was going well,”
As he discussed the glorious time he’d had
While visiting the trenches.
One can tell
You’ve gathered big impressions!” grinned the lad
Who’d been severely wounded in the back
In some wiped-out impossible Attack.
“Impressions? Yes, most vivid! I am writing
A little book called Europe on the Rack,
Based on notes made while witnessing the fighting.
I hope I’ve caught the feeling of ‘the Line,’
And the amazing spirit of the troops.
By Jove, those flying-chaps of ours are fine!
I watched one daring beggar looping loops,
Soaring and diving like some bird of prey.
And through it all I felt that splendour shine
Which makes us win.”
The soldier sipped his wine.
“Ah, yes, but it’s the Press that leads the way!”

 

An effective satire, perhaps, but very mid-1917. The future of war poetry is with Owen, not Sassoon. His “Anthem” was worked over by Sassoon, and profited from his suggestions–their joint session, by the way, makes for an unusually effective scene of “literature in action” in Pat Barker’s Regeneration. But the poem is Owen’s work, and it is powerful. When finished, it will read like this:

 

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

At the medical board, Owen, despite and because of his good health, is granted a reprieve–an extension of his time at Craiglockhart under Dr. Brock’s care. More time with Sassoon, and more time to write.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 495-6.
  2. Diary, 187.