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.

The Master of Belhaven Readies a Raid; Ivor Gurney in Love

Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, makes his final preparations for the artillery support for a local raid on the German lines. He has himself had quite an adventure as a forward observer not that long ago, but it is his duty, now, to restrain his subordinates from similar acts of derring-do.

The thaw has come with a vengeance now, and the country is in an awful state. The roads are three inches thick with mud… After lunch I went to B Battery and met the special liaison officer for the raid–Walsh–from C Battery. I gave him his final orders in writing and forbade him to go over the top with the raiders. I can’t afford to have good officers killed in joy riding. The raid is tonight…[1]

 

Meanwhile, there is an affair of a different sort brewing in Scotland. Ivor Gurney‘s role here has been that of the neurasthenic poet or the febrile, forgetful composer–an attenuated artist, living for his art, in any case. And that picture is incomplete, of course. He has also been a soldier and, in a salvage company, a sort of professional scavenger, writing intermittently of some of the war’s most dispiriting scenes. And since most of the letters we read are to Marion Scott, there are still layers of reserve that we might forget to notice amidst the impassioned poetic utterances. She is a friend as well as a patron, but there is still propriety, and the fear of provoking new and unpleasant emotional responses… so we have heard nothing, yet, of Annie Drummond.

Annie Nelson Drummond was a twenty-nine-year-old Scottish V.A.D. nurse at the Edinburgh War Hospital where Gurney spent much of October and November. Of all the people he met in his time there, she “made the most dramatic and lasting impression on him. She touched his heart and captured his imagination in a way that no other woman had been able to do.” She also, clearly, captured his esteem as well as his imagination, his bodily love as well as his metaphorical heart. Gurney has been reticent about the relationship not only because it was improper–nurses were not supposed to enter into relationships with patients–but also because, to be frank and/or craven, he had every reason to suspect that news of the affair might cause Scott to break with him, and both her friendship and her aid to his career (she singlehandedly produced his book, Severn and Somme, and saw several of his compositions to performance) were too valuable to risk.[2]

But Gurney has been away from Edinburgh for nearly two months now, and he misses Drummond badly. It seems that a letter or two reached him, and that they were able to plan to spend a weekend together. It is this combination of longing and expectation that seems to have prompted Gurney to write of Drummond to his friend Herbert Howells.

Fittingly, the first clear reference to Drummond (she has appeared–I did not notice–in previous letters under code-names of one sort or another) is in a letter from some time over the last few weeks, the date of which is lost.[3]

My Dear Howells…

…[ ] Nelson Drummond is older than I thought — born sooner I mean. She is 30 years old and most perfectly enchanting. She has a pretty figure, pretty hair, fine eyes, pretty hands and arms and walk. A charming voice, pretty ears, a resolute little mouth. With a great love in her she is glad to give when the time comes. In Hospital, the first thing that would strike you is “her guarded flame”. There was a mask on her face more impenetrable than on any other woman I have ever seen. (But that has gone for me.) In fact (at a guess) I think it will disappear now she has found someone whom she thinks worthy.

A not unimportant fact was revealed by one of the patients at hospital — a fine chap — I believe she has money. Just think of it!

Pure good luck, if it is true (as I believe it is). But she is more charming and tender and deep than you will believe till you see her….

I forgot my body walking with her; a thing that has not happened since……………when? I really dont know.

Drummond would probably not be offended by this reference to her money. (Although, of course, if they are intimate and she would not be offended, then why would he not have asked?) A sensible Scotswoman (although not so sensible as not to become involved with a patient under her care, and one with an “artist’s temperament,” not to say mental health issues past and present, and a penchant for parentheticals), Drummond hailed from the upper reaches of the working class, a descendant of several female businesswomen. But she can’t have much money–she does not seemed to have worked (outside the home: she ran much of the household and raised her younger siblings while her parents worked) until she began nursing after the outbreak of war.

Two more letters to Howells, the latest dated today, a century back, follow in turn:

Going North to Edinburgh

My Dear Howells: I have just written you a letter telling you of my coming up here. Please dont say anything about it to anyone but the Taylors. It will need explanation I am not ready to give yet, and of course my people will want to know why I did not go home — but a week-end leave is so short…

It is amusing to see Gurney walking the same balance as Wilfred Owen: leaves are few (far fewer for a soldier like Gurney than an officer like Owen), and the demands of family and friends must both be weifhed–or, rather, the demands of family must be set against a personal preference for seeing particular friends…

16 January 1918, Wednesday

My Dear Howells: Enclosed with this you will find a letter enclosed written just before I was hastening North to Edinburgh.

…Your criticisms are true. As to similarity — well, perhaps I wont admit anything but similarity in method. As to linking them up more tightly, that may come; but as to setting the things I do in an orthodox fashion — well it could be done; but I live attempting difficult things, and this is my way.

Wait till I am out of this though.

But enough about the criticism of his book:

Well I have just been up to Edinburgh, about that magnificent place, and in and out to Bangour.

Herbert Howells, it is just perfectly and radiantly All Right. I have reach Port, and am safe. I only wish and wish you could see her and know her at once. You and Harvey.

My Goodness, but it was a hot pain leaving her. We had a glorious Saturday afternoon and evening together. A glorious but bitterly cold Sunday evening. A snowy but intimate Monday evening. For the first time for ages I felt Joy in me; a clear fountain of music and light. By God, I forgot I had a body — and you know what height of living that meant to me. Well I’ll say no more.

Being in the Army is worse and better for me filled with memories and anticipations and being where I am — in surroundings that mock all beautiful dreams.

But to get her and settle down would make a solid rock foundation for me to build on — a home and tower of light.

Like you I see in her first of all a beautiful simplicity — her very first characteristic, — As you see in Dorothy. The kind of fundamental sweet first-thing one gets in Bach; not to be described, only treasured.

Well, well; why bore you? You know what I think and how it is with me.

May good luck be with you in this thing and all things:

Yours ever

I.B.G.[4]

Gurney is far from the most precise of poets, but it is nevertheless amusing to read that in the throes of this new love he both “forgot my body” and “forgot I had a body.” Many-splendoured thing indeed.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 440.
  2. See Blevins, Song of Pain and Beauty, 137.
  3. The printed text is marked--delightfully or creepily, take your pick--"[Mouse-eaten and incomplete]."
  4. War Letters, 240-2.

Ralph Hamilton Worries the Finer Points; Cynthia Asquith on Lady Desborough and Charles Dickens

Ralph Hamilton stayed up until two in the morning last night, a century back, first slaving over the duplicating machine and then touching up his colored maps by hand, with a paintbrush. A raid has been ordered on his sector and he has been charged with devising and executing the artillery plan. He is “very anxious the thing should go off well for everyone’s sake, and particularly as it is the first little battle that I have entirely arranged by myself.” Then, with all the planning done but for the smaller details, he went to a Casualty Clearing Session to have a rotten tooth pulled.[1]

 

While we await developments, then, let’s to London and, beginning with yesterday’s entry, reacquaint ourselves with Cynthia Asquith’s diary. Her husband’s surprise leave from his own artillery command lends a festive atmosphere to… scenes that may have had a different festive atmosphere had “Beb” not been there.

The list of friends to be mourned has grown longer, but her life is still filled with visitors, amusements, and sharp commentary on familiar figures–Lady Desborough, for one, whom we most recently saw mourning the death of Patrick Shaw Stewart.

Monday, 14th January

Lady Desborough, long before the war, with her two eldest sons, Julian and Billy Grenfell

Ettie and I were deep in conversation about Gosta Berling, and for what sum we would ‘give ourselves’, when Michael rushed up with a small silver egg-cup and peremptorily shouted, ‘Take that, and be sick in it!’ His power of suggestion was so great that Ettie began to feel sick and even she lay down before dinner.

Professor Walter Raleigh (University of Glasgow)

The beloved Professor arrived before dinner, looking more like a Blake drawing than ever. I love the way his eyes signal the thought which his tongue is shortly going to voice ‘coming over’, and he has such a delicious giggle in his eye.

This would be the formidably named Professor Walter Raleigh, one of the first and most influential professors of (contemporary) English Literature. But it is not to be a night, merely, of learned discussion.

After dinner really brilliantly amusing games were played. First Ettie unveiled me as a Renaissance statue; her float voice in pointing out the ‘lascivious contours of my cheek’ was admirable. Then Beb unveiled Evan as a ceramic of Helen of Troy—far the best thing of the kind I have ever seen. He really was brilliant, reaching his climax when he bared Evan’s shirt-front as Helen’s famous breast, delicately pointing out the curious and uncommon formation grotesquely represented by Evan’s two studs ( : instead of . .  )!

Cynthia Asquith (Bassano, whole-plate glass negative, 1912)

Just in case no one else is as pleased with the timelessness of Asquith’s writing as I am, I will note for the record that the above typographical representation–of what I take to be vertically-arrayed (rather than traditional horizontally-arrayed) nipples–is a pioneering use of whatever those ASCII smiley faces we used to use in emails are called…

We rocked with laughter. The Professor and Letty then did an excellent Hamlet and Ophelia to Beb’s judge.

 

That was yesterday, a century back. To today, then:

Tuesday, 15th January

Ettie had to go up by early train and so Evan was carried off bound to her chariot wheels—I wonder if he wouldn’t have loved to stay and talk to the Professor. Pages and pages of Barriesque sentiment from John’s governess, comparing John to Peter Pan and me to Wendy.

Which is a bit odd. But then again Asquith is a close friend of Barrie’s, and has worked as his assistant.

I got up late and took the Professor for a short walk before lunch. He wore a rug instead of a coat, and it looked just like a Sir Walter Raleigh cloak. I told him about Sylvia Strayte and he promised to write a scenario with the right part for her. After luncheon… my question, ‘Do you miss Ettie?’ led to the most interesting discussion on her.

‘Miss her? No,’ he replied, ‘I never miss her—I’m glad to see her, but I never miss her—because you see she’s never a rest.’ I said I thought she was just one of the people one might miss in absence more than one enjoyed in presence; Ettie being such a tuning-fork, one might feel in the dark—as if the electric light had been turned out—and when it was turned on it might make one blink. He said he didn’t need a ‘tonic’, and that his quarrel with her was her constant ‘battling’ against life, her swimming against the current—precisely the ‘steel’ qualities in her which Letty and I had been admiring and enjoying. I had even thought I must make an effort to emulate her and I must say it was honey to hear the Professor’s disapproving dissection of her. How she would have minded what he said!

I said that I thought, before the war and its weight of personal suffering had fallen on her, One might have been irritated by her stubborn gospel of joy and attributed it largely to health and personal immunity. But that, now she had earned the right to preach and practise, her determination to go on fighting with broken tools and to save what was still worth keeping was wholly admirable and most valuable. This he admitted, but when I said I envied her capacity for intimacy, he strenuously denied it and said that her deliberate activity made her mechanical, and prohibited any real friendship or the finest companionship—his great point being that she never ‘blossomed’, and that that was what he valued. When, in his comparison of us, I denied the dewdrop that I was natural he said, ‘No, you’re not natural—you’re Nature.’

A compliment produced with the skill of an Elizabethan courtier. But Asquith–high-born and well-married though she is–would rather Raleigh pass another test. She is a serious reader, unashamed of having popular taste (of the best sort), and requires some of this taste to be shared by her intimates:

The Professor has just re-discovered Dickens—having not touched him for years and approached him critically, he has now found himself caught up in a flame of love and admiration. At dinner he said no one should read him between childhood and thirty or forty—certainly not in college days. The discussion led to his reading us heavenly bits out of Our Mutual Friend, chiefly those-relating to those masterpieces the ‘Wilfers’. Beb’s sick, dainty face led to a fierce discussion between me and him, which inducted the Professor into some very good talk about beloved Dickens. I said he was my principal touchstone about people, and that I should never have married Beb had I fully realised this dreadful lacuna. Beb said, with a sort of pride, that at Oxford they had considered Dickens something scarcely to be mentioned, and he accused us of being on the wave of the counter reaction. This annoyed me—as at every age I have read and revelled in him from pure hedonism—I maintained that no one would feel obliged to admire him from literary snobbishness, as they would Keats. He gaped at me when I said that, whatever his faults of style, I ranked him with the real giants—with Shakespeare, in fact, because he had above all the quality of wealth, and love, and sympathy—and I also claimed the Homeric quality for him.

Shakespeare and Dickens again!

To my joy, the Professor was an eloquent ally and said Dickens was a ‘howling swell’: that he had suffered from mispraise—which had produced the reaction against him—that by his contemporaries he had been liked for the comic and the sentimental, and that now the tide of true appreciation had thrown him right up amongst the giants. He spoke of his ‘heavenly homeliness’, his exuberance and amazing richness, and proved how false and superficial the charge of ‘unreality’ was. To Beb’s inquiry he maintained that Sterne was ‘thin’ beside him, Meredith nowhere, and Thackeray pour rire. In fact he said he had ‘eternity’. He considers Great Expectations the masterpiece and that, even from the point of view of ‘style’, the description of the marshes was as good as anything.

It was interesting talk and I wish I could record it. I enjoyed getting heated, and Mamma told me to ‘put two bits of Beb on the fire’—meaning coal. I made the Professor promise to ‘testify’ his conversion to Dickens. I think he might write something delicious about him.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 436-7.
  2. Diaries, 395-7.

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.

Duff Cooper’s Country Weekend; Wilfred Owen’s Poetic Candlepower

Duff Cooper‘s weekend must continue to balance his mourning for Patrick Shaw Stewart with, well, getting on with the rest of his life.

January 5th.

Lady Desborough came down to breakfast and held the table as gallantly as ever. A pleasant morning spent playing with ponies and donkeys and sitting about, I went for a walk with Rosemary before tea the same walk that we went only a month ago when we were lamenting Edward. We had not had time even to find new words for our new sorrow. I like her enormously. She is so sensible. This evening more guests arrived. Michael, Rosemary, Diana and I played bridge until dinner… We talked about the past. It is my favourite subject now…[1]

 

Wilfred Owen provides a pretty direct contrast: work instead of play, and thoughts for the future and for new friends, instead of the past, and vanished ones.

10.30 p.m. 5 January, 1918

My dear dear Mother,

This has been a day of continuous work from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m…

On such days I always write to you—as you notice. Because on such days I have no time to settle down to my art. For it is an art, & will need the closest industry. Consider that I spend—what ?—three hours a week at it,  which means one fruitful half-hour, when I ought to be doing SIX hours a day by all precedents.

Poor Wilfred Owen, born into a time when writers’ work habits were glorified and dramatized instead of analyzed and debunked. Six hours! Surely not…

Owen doesn’t mean to gloat over his untalented cousin’s lack of success, but, again, simple contrasts are irresistible to a certain cast of writing mind… and this is a clever line, just self-deprecating enough, and yet accurate in its claims. There is power, here…

Leslie has been unfavourably reviewed by the Times Literary Supplement. Not attacked of course: one does not attack harmless civilians—They say he rimes with ease but has no originality or power.

I rime with wicked difficulty, but a power of five men, four women, three children, two horses, and one candle is in me…

Your own Wilfred x[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Old Men Forget, 72.
  2. Collected Letters, 525-6.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Sunday, 16th December

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

A Gathering at Mrs. Colefax’s: Nichols, the Sitwells, Graves, Sassoon, and Sorley; Eliot and Huxley too; and Cynthia Asquith is Very Glad She Went

At precisely 5 o’clock in the afternoon of today, a century back, a reading–to benefit charity, as well as, naturally, the stature of the participants–began in Mrs. Colefax’s drawing room, in Argyll House, King’s Road, Chelsea. The eminent Edmund Gosse presided, insisted on speed, and then immediately launched into a rambling introduction memorable only for the fact that he broke off to scold a late arrival–T.S. Eliot, coming straight from work. Gosse then read a poem or two by the absent Robert Graves, and, after ceding the limelight, kept the attention of the crowd by “snapping” at the other poets throughout the night.[1]

Next came Robert Nichols, opening with a poem of Gosse’s (yes, that sort of thing flattered Gosse) and following with several of his own. Nichols was either a compellingly dramatic reader and performer, or he made an ass of himself by screaming and capering. It depends on whose account you favor–Sassoon’s opinion of his friend seems to state the former sort of opinion, but the language rather implies the latter. Nichols also read two poems by Charles Sorley, who has now been dead for twenty-six months. These didn’t, alas, make much of an impression–When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead was evidently not on the bill.

Other performers included all three Sitwells–Osbert (still an unwounded and inexplicably free-and-easy-in-London subaltern of the Guards), Edith, and Sacheverell–as well as the actress Viola Tree, Irene Rutherford Mcleod, and Aldous Huxley. Irene Macleod impressed several of the onlookers, if more with her performance–“fierce, rapt”–than her work. It’s not clear what she read, but her next volume of poems will be dedicated to Aubrey de Sélincourt, classicist and fighter pilot, now languishing in a German P.O.W. camp.[2] Huxley had been rejected for military service because of his eyesight, spent some time at a desk job in the Air Ministry, and was now a young teacher at Eton and tending toward pacifism. He was probably thrilled to be there, but he did not take kindly to Gosse, whom he described as “the bloodiest little old man I have ever seen.” And while we’re at it we’d better get Huxley’s other much-quoted mot out of the way: it’s a description of Nichols, who, Huxley wrote, “raved and screamed and hooted and moaned… like a Lyceum Villain who hasn’t learnt how to act.” Which sounds like a hatchet job–or just a broad-for-effect version of Sassoon’s opinion. Nichols, however, had been previously put down by Vita Sackville West, and with much deadlier efficiency.

As for the Sitwells, only Sacheverell’s poetry impressed, but Edith’s work with the Wheels anthologies had forged an all-important link between “society” and Modernism. This, “the first recorded sighting of the three Sitwells operating publicly as a team,” was something of a coming out party for the artistically ambitious siblings.[3]

Among the literary lights in the audience was Arnold Bennett, who enjoyed the occasion and found Eliot’s choice of light verse–The Hippopotamus (which is indeed charming and light, for a half-realized and possibly self-deceiving satire on the Church of England)–to be the “best thing” about the evening. And of course it would be, as well, in any account that looked back on the day in the fullness of time and literary-consensual retrospect. T.S. Eliot! Months after “Prufrock!” Reading a satire as second-fiddle to a syphilitic third-rater and some absent “Georgian” war poets! Come on!

But Eliot wasn’t Eliot yet–he was an American of indeterminate talent whom no one, really, had read. His strange ascent had barely begun, while Robert Nichols was selling a ton and had surely achieved peak Robert Nichols. It was his show: he would have seemed the one to bet on. Not schoolboyish Huxley, who would soon give up poetry, and probably not the three slightly freakish Sitwells, at once too outré and suspiciously like aristocratic enthusiasts rather than major talents. And certainly not the amusing American banker, either: despite the English affinity for light satiric verse, it has hardly been a typical route to poetic world-conquest.

Eliot, however, enjoyed himself. After having written a purposefully obscene and nevertheless nasty letter to Ezra Pound about his invitation (“Shitwells,” etc.) he will soon manage a faintly preening letter to his mother.

I assisted in a poetry reading last week at the house of some rich person for the benefit of something. A hundred and fifty people were induced to pay 10/6 each, so it was rather a rich audience… It was rather amusing, as the audience and most of the poets were very solemn, and I read some light satirical stuff, and some of them didn’t know what to make of it…[4]

 

Which brings us to another attendee, whose judgment in most things I’ve recently come to trust. Cynthia Asquith gives us the most balanced–and most thorough–review of the evening:

Wednesday, 12th December

…Went with Mamma to the Poets’ Reading at Mrs Colefax’s. Somehow it was ever so much better than Elizabeth’s Parnassuses—smaller, more intime, and above all shorter. All the poets were young and most of them had fought in the war. It was very moving. I liked Nichols enormously, with his bright, intensely alive, rather stoat-like face. He read again in the same intensely passionate dramatic way: I like it, but a great many people don’t. As well as his own, he read two—as I thought—very beautiful poems by Sorley who was killed at twenty years of age. Gosse was in the chair and acquitted himself quite well. Three Sitwells, all looking very German—Osbert, Sacheverell, and Edith—all read from their works. The author of ‘Prufrock’ read quite a funny poem comparing the Church to a hippopotamus. There was a young man called Huxley, and a very remarkable, fierce, rapt girl called McLeod who read her own clever poems beautifully. Siegfried Sassoon didn’t appear, but his poems were read by this girl. Mamma was very much moved by the war poems. I was very, very glad I went. Dined with Freyberg at the  Trocadero again and we went on to play poker at Ruby’s—I won £3 2s. Freyberg took me home and found his way into the hall with me.[5]

All very interesting, not least in the sincerity of emotion in Asquith’s reaction to the reading. Jaded as I am by the years on this project, it’s hard not to see a society charity reading as something of a hollow performance (especially when, as we know, but Asquith didn’t, that the young poets present had seen very little of the worst of the war, compared to those who were absent). But Cynthia Asquith, who actually went to this and many other charity-literary events, know of what she writes, and was moved.

So much for the famous evening at Mrs. Colefax’s. And afterwards? It doesn’t seem, judging from Asquith’s diary, that Freyberg attended the reading, although at least one later writer assumes that he did.  It would have been interesting, certainly, to have him and his V.C. lording it over the doubly-absent M.C. of Sassoon. Regardless, Freyberg’s pursuit of the hesitating Asquith will shortly encounter Sassoon as something of an intellectual obstacle. If Freyberg wasn’t there, then Asquith surely discussed the reading with him at dinner, and Freyberg knows the poetry well enough to have at least have an opinion (which is not to say, of course, that he knows it well). Remarkably, even as flirtation (and/or unwanted advances) continues between the two, their disagreement on the whys and wherefores of Sassoon’s position will soon come between them, and his anti-war war-hero literary cachet will turn Sassoon into a shadow rival to Freyberg and his  muscular/dashing appeal.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. It should be noted here at the outset that this gathering is crying out to be the focal point of a trendy (if minor-key) potted literary history... but as far as I know its only wholly-owned chapter, even, is the one in Ricketts's book. The problem is that for all the writers, celebrities, and diarists present, no one wrote a very full account, or recorded much about what was actually read. No program survives, and so the evening remains only half-imaginable.
  2. Mcleod and de Sélincourt will marry after the war; her poetry seems to stop as his career (Herodotus, Livy, etc.) takes off; they will have two daughters, and become, naturally, the in-laws of Christopher Robin.
  3. Ziegler, Osbert Sitwell, 78.
  4. The Letters of T.S. Eliot, 241.
  5. Diary, 379-80.

A Bad Night for Dr. Rivers; Thomas Hardy’s Blood Runs Cold; Wilfred Owen is Slightly Impolitic

After his nightmare of a day, yesterday, attending Lewis Yealland’s therapy/torture sessions, Dr. W.H.R. Rivers awoke from a nightmare in the wee hours of today, a century back. He had dreamed of the contorted men he had seen, and one had mouthed to him the words of Siegfried Sassoon‘s protest… then he himself had tortured another patient with an electrode–forcing it down his throat… until the electrode turned into a horse’s bit, and he woke up in a cold sweat.

So it went, in the novel, of course; but Pat Barker eases up on her hero in the full light of day. Rivers visits his mentor, Henry Head, and is consoled and reassured–his methods, of course, are very, very different from Yealland’s. But, then again, those gentler methods had still put the bit back in Sassoon’s mouth. And it is time for Rivers to return to Craiglockhart, now, for the second attempt at Sassoon’s Medical Board.[1]

 

Speaking of Sassoon-approved elders, here is a pertinent letter from Thomas Hardy to one J.M. Bulloch, explaining why he doesn’t have war poems to spare:

Max Gate, Dorchester, 25th. November 1917.

Dear Mr Bulloch:

I should like to write something about the War for The Graphic if I ever wrote anything in prose nowadays. But I have got out of the way of that sort of thing—I suppose because I have written nothing but verse for the last
twenty years and more…

I sent off elsewhere the only two war poems I had. If I had known I should have been pleased to let you have one. Perhaps another will come into my mind; but I don’t know. The machine-made horrors of the present war make one’s blood run cold rather than warm as a rule…

Yours sincerely,

Thomas Hardy.[2]

 

This letter from an eminence to an importunate editor is echoed by Wilfred Owen‘s letter to his perfervid but not terribly talented cousin, Leslie Gunston. I don’t think Owen means to be cruel about Gunston’s vanity-published poems, but… yikes.

Sunday, 26 November 1917 Clarence Gardens Hotel, Scarborough

My dear Leslie,

Received the Books last night, and spent an exciting few minutes looking through the poems. I congratulate you on the Binding & Type…

And from that opening the praise gets fainter (with a few bones thrown in, for pity’s sake). The interesting bit, for us, is this:

I don’t like ‘Hymn of Love to England’, naturally, at this period while I am composing ‘Hymns of Hate’…[3]

 

But we have forgotten France: it is Isaac Rosenberg‘s twenty-seventh birthday today, a century back, and he is celebrating it in hospital, where he continues to recover from a dangerous flu. Which is fortunate, as his battalion is being destroyed in Bourlon Wood.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See Regeneration, 234-42.
  2. The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 233.
  3. Collected Letters, 509-10.

George Coppard’s Machine Guns to Cambrai; Rowland Feilding’s Rangers at Bullecourt; Robert Graves Sets the Record Straight; Agnes Miller as Lizzie Bennet, Olaf Stapledon as Mr. Darcy

Today, a century back, was the first day of the battle of Cambrai. There shouldn’t have been any real hope for a breakthrough, especially so near to the beginning of winter. But the ground in front of Cambrai–between the Arras battlefield and the Somme battlefield–was relatively unspoiled, and it was conceivable that the British could take the town and the Bourlon Ridge and thus threaten to cut off the Hindenberg Line. It is also conceivable that since the Third Army hadn’t suffered horribly, lately, its restive commanders simply wanted to experiment with massed tanks and new artillery tactics, and so an intelligent commitment to holding the line gave way to an experimental local attack that grew out of scale as the planning continued.

But I’m not capable of giving an intelligent precis of the strategy here, nor do we really need one. Six divisions of infantry and over 400 tanks were massed for the traditional dawn assault, and there was some hope that the Germans, expecting a long barrage, would be unprepared for the sudden attack after a short, furious bombardment by over a thousand guns, most of which had been “silently” registered on their targets. The new tactics worked well, but they will not be enough to sustain initial successes against the heavily built-up Hindenberg Line.

Among the thousands lying out between the British front lines in the early morning hours were George Coppard and his two machine gun teams, part of the 37th Brigade, 12th Division.

There we were, a brigade of men, shivering on a cold November night, without a smoke, and suffering like drug addicts… we were only allowed to communicate in whispers. It was the queerest sensation being packed with a vast crowd of warriors, within 400 yards of our front line, and out in the open, after living like rabbits in burrows for many months. It was a spooky business, and we kept as quiet as mice…

Like all the rest I was excited at the prospect of going into battle behind these new-fangled Wellsian monsters. I felt they were really going to exact retribution, on behalf of all of us, for the countless miseries and privations that we poor blighters had suffered at Jerry’s hands.This was to be the reckoning…

Zero was at 6.30 am on that memorable day, 20 November. We heard the sound of tank engines warming up. The first glimpse of dawn was beginning to show as we stood waiting for the big bang that would erupt behind us at the end of the countdown. Lieutenant Garbutt and Sergeant Critcher were standing near me. At last the officer began to count. He was bang on, and in a flash the black sky at our backs was ablaze with stabbing shafts of light. A vast drum of terrible thunder swept along the eight-mile front and a chorus of shells screamed over to the east. The need for silence was over, and we exploded in a babble of excitement. That concentration of artillery was surely one of the greatest ever known. The tanks, looking like giant toads, became visible against the skyline as they approached the top of the slope. Some of the leading tanks carried huge bundles of tightly-bound brushwood, which they dropped when a wide trench was encountered, thus providing a firm base to cross over. Suddenly, the bombardment ceased. By now the tanks were near the German lines and shooting it out where resistance was met…

We went forward into enemy country in a manner never possible without the aid of tanks. ‘A’ section fell in behind the Queen’s, my two guns being on the right flank. No enemy fire of any sort impeded us until we passed Gonnelieu on our left… It was broad daylight as we crossed No Man’s Land and the German front line. I saw very few wounded coming back, and only a handful of prisoners. The tanks appeared to have busted through any resistance. The enemy wire had been dragged about like old curtains, though it was not comparable in density to the terrible wire at the beginning of the Somme battle.

As we moved forward… I could see several tanks rolling forward steadily. There did not appear to be any organised defence against them. Some changed directions to meet isolated spots of resistance, mostly from machine guns. One or two had come to a stand-still, probably with engine trouble…

From the general situation it seemed to me that the German infantry had either fled at the apparition of the tanks or had pulled out deliberately, leaving their machine guns to do what they could…

Whatever the reason for the feeble resistance, it suited my gun team very nicely, and we moved forward steadily with guns and gear. Officialdom had designated tanks sex-wise, i.e. those with light cannon were males and those with machine guns were females. This caused the lads to think up some bright expressions when viewing the lumbering monsters, such as, “Here’s an old bitch,’ or, ‘There goes a bloody great bull.’

Advancing along captured communications trenches, Coppard and his men eventually discovered that not all German resistance had been overcome. His wide-ranging memories of the day[1] narrow, now, as he comes under direct fire.

We reached a point where it cut through the banks of a sunken road. We had to cross the road, but pulled up sharp at the sight of three dead Tommies lying on it. I dashed across the road to where the trench continued–a matter of about ten feet. From a concealed position on my right a Jerry machine guns opened fire. My hair stood on end as the bullets hissed past my back. The gunner was just a trifle late to get me.

There was a tank nearby beginning to move after a stop. I told one of the crew about the enemy machine gun, ‘We’ll fix the bastard,’ he replied, and slowly the tank shuffled round on its tracks and rolled off in the direction of the hostile gun. Then came a fiery burst as the hapless weapon tried to beat off the tank, the bullets clanging and ricocheting. The teams crossed the road safely, well-bucked at this practical demonstration of a tank in action.

Other than this adventure, Coppard saw little action–most of the German artillery seems to have withdrawn before the attack–evidence, perhaps, that they were not in fact strategically surprised. The 37th Brigade advances seven kilometres, just as planned, and without finding targets along the way. After his two teams dig in for the night–and for the expected counter-attack–Coppard explored their immediate area, finding a German command dugout with a body at the bottom. Nauseated–and fearing booby traps–he and his hungry men forgo taking any of the food in the dugout…[2]

 

Rowland Feilding‘s battalion was part of the 16th (Irish) Division, and attacked not as part of the main effort at Cambrai but with the subsidiary attack several miles to the west, at Bullecourt. They held the right flank of their brigade attack, which would prove to be a difficult situation.

Shortly before Zero I headed for the front to wish the assaulting Companies good luck before they went over, but I was delayed, and found myself still in the fire-trench when, bursting out of almost perfect silence, our barrage started…

As a precautionary measure I had had the direction of the objective marked out with tape the night before, having learned, from previous experience, the difficulty of keeping direction in the dark.

Absolutely to the tick I watched the men scaling the ladders… and scrambling over the parapet, the signallers under their sergeant struggling with the coils of telephone wire that was to keep me in touch with the assaulting troops once they had established themselves in the German trench. Those are sights that are very inspiring, and which engrave themselves upon the memory, but I prefer to turn away from them…

By this time the usual inferno… had worked up to its full fury.

It is very clear, at least, that British synchronization has reached a high level of efficiency. Feilding describes the barrage, and his attempt to control the attack from a forward position, but the small dugout soon becomes crammed with wounded men and German prisoners, so he headed back to his “proper Headquarters.”

At this moment poor Brett came stumbling back, crimson with blood, having been shot through the face, bringing further confirmation of the news which I already had from him by runner, that the enemy was furiously counter-attacking our exposed right flank.

The two bunkers are visible in the upper left of the map segment, below, just to the left of the hatched vertical line. Both are marked, appropriately enough, with a symbol much like the conventional “mars” symbol, but in this case indicating a “mebus” machine gun emplacement.

In his next letter, Feilding will explain the tactical situation. The primary objectives of his two companies were two huge reinforced concrete bunkers (“Mebus” was then the term) known as “Mars” and “Jove.” Both were swiftly outflanked under a precise barrage and smoke-screen–“the advance to the attack across Noman’s Land had been carried out precisely as rehearsed”–and surrendered after brief resistance. Eventually, 152 prisoners were collected, but the engineers accompanying the infantry, focused on clearing mines and booby-traps, were unable to block all of the tunnels connecting the German network of defensive positions.

When the counter-attack came, less than an hour after zero, it was both over the open ground to their right and through tunnels that led to the bunker.

You will appreciate its severity when I tell you that the Commander and twenty-six out of twenty-eight other ranks of the right flank platoon became casualties. The officers and men fought with the most heroic determination in spite of a failing and finally disappearing supply of bombs…

At a critical moment one of the men, Private K. White, rushed close up to a traverse from behind which the enemy was bombing, and actually catching some of their bombs in the air, threw them back before they had exploded.

But it was not enough–after an hour, Captain Brett, shot through the face, led a retreat onto the other pillbox. This held, and after another hour, Feilding himself crossed No Man’s land with his orderly in order to visit the position.

I talked to the men as I passed along the line, and found them in good spirits, and confident in the knowledge of the splendid part they had played that morning…

They have done well–and still suffered heavy casualties.

The familiar scene of desolation confronted me. Each time I see this kind of thing I think it is worse than the last time, and indeed, on this occasion, so churned up was the surface that, but for the line of tunnel entrances and the trodden ground between them, there was little left to indicate where the trench had been. It was just a sea of overlapping craters of huge dimensions–a dismal chaos of fresh-turned earth.

Feilding, with little to do now that the counter-attack has petered out, explores the new position, coming upon the dead, the dying, and the wounded. Even though he is so close to the action–he was in command of the men who stormed the two pillboxes and took the tunnels with hand-grenades, he writes almost as an observer. He sees the horrible aftermath, promises aid to the wounded, and collects souvenirs…[3]

 

Back down in the main battle, Edward Horner (one of the last of the Coterie, and a great friend of both Diana Manners and Duff Cooper) moved up with his 18th Hussars as the battle began. We have read Coppard’s and Feilding’s tales of heavy machine guns, precise artillery coordination, and tank exploits against pillboxes, and the battlefield was overflown by hundreds of aircraft–1917 as a foreshadowing of 1939. But there were only a few hundred tanks to be had and, as we shall see, they were mechanically unreliable, and so the plan for exploiting any breakthroughs was essentially the same as it had been in 1915 and 1916, and behind the attacking tanks and infantry trotted three entire divisions of cavalry–Hussars, Dragoons, and Lancers no longer dressed in their flashing Napoleonic finery, but still booted, spurred, helmeted, and mounted. Cambrai was, in the words of one of our writers who was not there but will study the subject, “a harum-scarum affair, ill-planned and feebly directed.” It was a raid that got out of hand, in terms of its scale, and could only do what raids do: snatch a bit of ground which cannot be held. The tactical coordination may yet be a model for future operations, but they have not solved the operational problem of continuing the advance.

So, as the German counter-attack gathers, Horner’s Hussars, part of the 1st Cavalry Division, passed through the infantry and attacked the village of Noyelles, south-east of Cambrai. But too slowly: although in some places all three major layers of the Hindenberg Line were pierced to a distance of nearly five miles (a fourth line was incomplete), by the time the heavily-laden horses had picked their way through, the German defense had had time to organize. The cavalry were in it, at last, but they were not cantering through the open fields toward Berlin. They were fighting a confused battle on a torn up field, against undisturbed reserves who had easier access to heavy weapons.

 

Back to the infantry, now. E. A. Mackintosh’s 4th Seaforth Highlanders were in reserve, although they probably assumed that they would be called in when the attack bogged down. But they were not–and if the cavalry were both elated and disappointed to be involved in heavy fighting, the infantry were very pleased to have a short march forward into the captured area. So, despite yesterday’s note, Mackintosh saw no fighting today. During the night they will take over for the first waves, victorious but exhausted.[4]

 

Also in the battle were both of Isaac Rosenberg‘s recent units–the company of Royal Engineers with whom he had served as a laborer and the 11th King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster). As with Mackintosh’s Seaforths, their easy first day will turn out to be only be a brief reprieve: the German counter-attack will come soon, and it will be as devastating as the British assault was successful. And so Rosenberg will come to know that he has been very fortunate to be very ill, and in hospital, and not in Bourlon Wood.[5]

 

It might make sense to end here, or to spend more time fleshing out these scattered notices of a large battle–but that, of course, is not how today, a century back, was experienced. It was all in bits in pieces, and only later would it be the beginning of a strategic story of ambition, success, and cruel but predictable reversal. In England the evening papers will have some news of the attack, but for most people, most of the day, their thoughts were elsewhere.

Robert Graves, for instance, is writing from his garrison job in Wales to Robert Nichols. The letter happily discusses their recent literary successes–“My God, Robert, we have lit such a candle as by God’s grace will set the whole barn alight”–and proposes various projects, before it works around to Graves’s real business–clearing the air of any lingering questions about his sexuality.

It’s only fair to tell you that since the cataclysm of my friend Peter, my affections are running in the more normal channels and I correspond regularly and warmly with Nancy Nicholson, who is great fun. I only tell you this so that you should get out of your head any misconceptions about my temperament. I should hate you to think I was a confirmed homosexual even if it were only in my thought and went no further.

Fair enough, perhaps. It is testimony to both Graves’s enthusiasm and his obliviousness that it might only recently have occurred to him that his habit of being honest about his (chaste) passion for a younger schoolboy might lead some to think that he was “a confirmed homosexual.” The topic may be on his mind, too, because Nichols–his heterosexuality confirmed by syphilis apparently contracted from prostitutes–has recently spent time with Siegfried Sassoon and Robbie Ross. And then there is one more poet whose affections run in less “normal” channels… and whom Graves, after connecting Nichols and Sassoon (though Ross was there to do the real work) will try to take credit for discovering, even though, of course, it was Sassoon who introduced them.

I think I have found a few poet as yet unfledged. One Owen, subaltern in the 2nd Manchester Regiment.[6]

Owen, meanwhile, left home this morning, a century back, his leave up, for garrison duty in Scarborough.[7]

 

Finally today, we’ll take a perversely wide view of “war literature” and swing from the tanks at Cambrai to the nineteenth century novel inspiring in Australia.

Agnes Miller–together with a score of other wives and sweethearts–suffers the compounded insult, here, of once again waiting quietly in the background while men’s words take center stage. The excuse, of course, is that we are interested, a century on, in the experience of the war and the problems of writing about it, and therefore the letters of those at the front naturally take precedence over those written from home to the soldiers (and ambulance drivers). Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s still a shame that this echoes the general devaluing of women’s voices, a century back. Although sometimes any fault is mine–I choose to omit the letters, that is–another reasonable excuse is that there is often no possibility of including the other half of the conversation: letters from the front could be bundled and laid lovingly away in drawers and trunks, while letters to the front were very often lost or simply thrown away, since a bundle of letters would become a burden to a front-line soldier.

But some recipients were able to keep at least some of their letters, and, while I often skip Agnes Miller’s tales of daily life in wartime Australia, today’s letter, though ill-timed to coincide with a major tank battle and the climax of one machine-gunner’s memoir, is impossible to resist. In fact, it’s about as excellent a letter from a lover as one could hope to receive… which is also to say that I approve of its subject and position, a century on. Moreover, after he will have received her long-delayed doubts on the strength of their relationship to survive these years apart, this letter will surely overwhelm Olaf Stapledon with love for his beloved–and with gratitude for the timely wisdom of that “lady novelist” then dead a century and four months.

20 November 1917

I wonder if perhaps you are at home now on leave—perhaps at this very minute waking up one morning at Annery. I have a habit of always thinking of you eight weeks ago, sort of. I don’t realise that you are really there keeping pace with me at every fresh minute of the day. It is nice to think that. It makes you more real. I have read two books in the past three days. That is my record! I kept thinking how much you would have enjoyed them if we had been reading them aloud to each other. Of course you must have read them—“Pride & Prejudice” & “Northanger Abbey.” You do like Jane Austen, don’t you? I simply love her. Such really artistic delightful writing. Such books make me think of diamonds, small diamonds but perfect in workmanship. Absolutely genuine—clean cut, perfectly smooth & sparkling. Full of such delicious humour & such sound good sense, & although the ways & the language that day are so very different from ours yet the characters are just such as we meet everywhere. I should like to have been friends with Jane & Elizabeth Bennett. . . . I should so like to be as bright & intelligent & sprightly as Elizabeth! No wonder Mr. Darcy “got it badly” when he did get it! I like to picture you in the characters of all the nice lovers— my
Mr. Darcy!

. . . I can understand Elizabeth very well. I can understand her resentment at such a sudden & unexpected declaration. I can understand her disapproval amounting to positive dislike on that occasion. I think she would understand my despair & sorrow—almost shame at having won a love that I could never hope to return. If she had understood my feeling she would not have been surprised to find me weeping upstairs in the darkened drawing room. . . .

Then next I see the beginnings of changes in both of us—changes which make us feel how far away we both were before from the real thing & at last “my Mr. Darcy” comes to me—or rather I write to him from the other end of the world & say, “Dear Mr. Darcy—Once, a long time ago, you asked me to be your wife & I said no & I was very cross & horrible & now I am sorry. Everything is different now & I am different too & I understand & if you will only ask me once again I will not say no—indeed I will not.”

And she did not.

Mr. & Mrs. Darcy were very happy after their stormy courtship & Mr. & Mrs. Stapledon will surely be even more so to make up for all the long time they have had to wait. . . . Jane Austen really is a tonic as well as an artist.[8]

We are to be grateful, however, that Agnes didn’t happen upon Persuasion, first, which might have romantically inclined her toward a long sharp wartime separation and a preference, after all, for brave, dashing, and fortunate officers, rather than principled and dreamy pacifists…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Which read a little bit too much, in a few places, as if they had been influenced by the style of later popular summary.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 122-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 228-34.
  4. Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man With a Cold, 204-5.
  5. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 375.
  6. In Broken Images, 88-89. There is no date on the letter, but it is dated to today, a century back, by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 425.
  7. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 283.
  8. Talking Across the World, 257-8.

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.