Yesterday, a century back, was Edward Thomas’s first full day at the front. But his battery has not yet gone into action, and things are slow.
No letters yet. Censoring as usual. Gramophone playing… 9 p.m. Great cannonade thudding and flashing quite continuously away south in Ancre.
Slow enough to finally write–despite the gramophone–to Robert Frost, the friend whose regard and sympathetic understanding (and poetic gift) prodded Thomas into writing poetry in the first place. But with Frost across the Atlantic, and increasingly out of touch with Thomas’s mental world, the friendship has been lagging. Thomas recently received a copy of Frost’s new book, Mountain Interval; he is still hoping for help from Frost in seeing his own first collection published. Nevertheless, it is the friendship that matters most to Thomas, and it is hard not to think, once again, that Eleanor Farjeon gets the drafts, while Frost gets the polished work. This letter–the second paragraph in particular–is like a refined version of what he wrote to her yesterday.
244 Siege Battery BEF France 111 February 1917 and a Sunday they tell me
My dear Robert,
I left England a fortnight ago and have now crawled with the battery up to our position. I can’t tell you where it is, but we are well up in high open country. We are on a great main road in a farmhouse facing the enemy who are about 2 miles away, so that their shells rattle our windows but so far only fall a little behind us or to one side. It is near the end of a 3 week’s frost. The country is covered with snow which silences everything but the guns. We have slept—chiefly in uncomfortable places till now. Here we lack nothing except letters from home. It takes some time before a new unit begins to receive its letters. I have enjoyed it very nearly all. Except shaving in a freezing tent. I don’t think I really knew what travel was like till we left England.
Yesterday, our 2nd day, I spent in the trenches examining some observation posts to see what could be seen of the enemy from them. It was really the best day I have had since I began. We had some shells very near us, but were not sniped at. I could see the German lines very clear but not a movement anywhere, nothing but posts sticking out of the snow with barbed wire, bare trees broken and dead and half ruined houses. The only living men we met at bends in trenches, eating or carrying food or smoking. One dead man lay under a railway arch so stiff and neat (with a covering of sacking) that I only slowly remembered he was dead. I got back, tired and warm and red. I hope I shall never enjoy anything less. But I shall. Times are comparatively quiet just here. We shall be busy soon and we shall not be alone. I am now just off with a working party to prepare our Gun positions which are at the edge of a cathedral town a mile or two along the road we look out on. We are to fight in an orchard there in sight of the cathedral.
It is night now and cold again. Machine guns rattle and guns go ‘crump’ in front of us. Inside a gramophone plays the rottenest songs imaginable, jaunty unreal dirty things. We get on well enough but we are a rum company. There is a Scotch philosopher, an impossible unmilitary creature who looks far more dismal than he really can be—I like him to talk to, but he is too glaringly timid and apologetic and helpless to live with. The others are all commonplace people under 26 years old who are never serious and could not bear anyone else to be serious. We just have to be dirty together. I also cannot be sincere with them. Two are boys of 19 and make me think of the boys I might have had for company. One of the two aged about 24 is rather a fine specimen of the old English soldiers, always bright and smart and capable, crude but goodhearted and frivolous and yet thorough at their work. He has been 10 years in the army. All his talk is in sort of proverbs or cant sayings and bits of comic songs, coarse metaphors—practically all quotations.
But I am seldom really tired of them. I suppose I am getting to like what they are, and their lack of seriousness is no deception and is just their method of expression.
I used to read some of the Sonnets while we were at Havre, but not on these last few days of travel. ‘Mountain Interval’ also is waiting.
My love to you all.
(s/Lt) Edward Thomas
It’s very nice to put one’s friend in the company of Shakespeare–for it’s his Sonnets which Thomas has been reading, and Frost’s Mountain Interval surely might wait a bit, then, and still be highly valued… what’s odd, though, is that Thomas seems to have already read the book, or at least most of it. Why does he not want to discuss it with Frost? Fatigue, perhaps…
The second leg of Siegfried Sassoon‘s last leave involved little in the way of attentive dogs, Elizabethan airs, or uncomfortable family silences. After a few days with his mother in Kent, Sassoon went to stay in London with Robbie Ross and was soon immersed in literary London, and particularly in its semi-clandestine gay social circles.
Today, a century back, Sassoon managed to eat three square meals, one with each of the three friendly patrons who have done the most to advance his poetic career.
Breakfast with Eddie Marsh at Gray’s Inn. Lunch at the Reform with Meiklejohn and Robbie Ross. Tea at Gower Street with ‘Brett’ to inspect her vast portrait of Ottoline Morrell. Dinner at Gosse’s. At 1.45 a.m. bed.
With Marsh Sassoon was discussing the proofs of his next book; with Ross it was “gallant efforts to keep our spirits up” in the best Victorian style (Ross had been the staunch friend of Oscar Wilde), and we might assume that dinner with Edmund Gosse was a more staid affair. And then there is tea, too, and the mention of Lady Ottoline Morrell (the Dorothy Brett portrait I don’t have, alas).
Sassoon–far from famous but no longer unknown–is now at the confluence of several literary streams. Marsh, of course, remains secretary to Winston Churchill (who is in the political wilderness, now) and the force behind Georgian Poetry and all things Brooke and Brookeish. Ross, who was openly gay in a time when that meant facing constant prejudice and the threat of prosecution, provided entree into gay life in London, about which Sassoon does not write. Gosse was highly respected, and although he too repressed homosexual desires he was an older family man–and an old friend of Sassoon’s family–and he represented a Victorian literary mode that even non-revolutionary types like Sassoon must have found rather stuffy.
And the there is Ottoline Morrell. Lady Ottoline was an influential, off-beat society figure whose various interests tilted much younger and more Modern than any of Sassoon’s other friendly patrons–she will come to patronize several other notable artists and writers. But much more important, now, is the fact that she is an outspoken pacifist.
Sassoon had spent a good deal of time at her house during the difficult-to-date middle period of his convalescent leave in the early autumn, and there he learned… well… influence is always difficult to pin down. Sassoon is always the first to acknowledge his own impressionability, but is it really a matter of his getting anti-war ideas from her circle? Not exactly. Even if he was not quite as putty-like as he would have us believe, this is not really a matter of ideas but rather of emotion. No one at Garsington Manor could teach Sassoon to hate the war, but they could model attitudes of expressing this hatred… So: is the Bohemian glamor of openly criticizing the war pushing Sassoon further off-kilter, further away from any comfort with his Mad Jack/Happy Warrior persona? Surely. But Sassoon–in retrospect, again–is also able to recognize the self-centeredness of this anti-war turn.
Distraction of a different character was provided by Lady Ottoline, with whom I spent two whole afternoons which were by no means beneficial to my state of mind… Lady Ottoline insisted on being intensely earnest and discursive. She was obsessed by what she felt to be the brutal stupidity and imbecile wastefulness of the War, and my own return to it had involved her in a crisis of emotional depression.This caused me to talk recklessly, with a sort of victimized bitterness. I should probably get killed, I said; but the main trouble was that I no longer new what I was being killed for. ‘One gets sent out again like a cabbage going to Covent Garden Market,’ I exclaimed, adding that cabbages were better off, because they didn’t claim to have unconquerable souls, and weren’t told that they were making a supreme sacrifice for the sake of unborn vegetables. These discussion led neither of us anywhere…
So the later memoir, well-polished in its sheepish sloughing off of youthful confusions…
As for today’s diary entry, there is nothing else in Sassoon’s own voice. But immediately after the entry he copies in three (of four) stanzas of a Thomas Hardy poem.
Let me enjoy the earth no less
Because the all-enacting Might
That fashioned forth its loveliness
Had other aims than my delight.
From manuscripts of moving song
Inspired by scenes and dreams unknown
I’ll pour out raptures that belong
To others, as they were my own.
And some day hence, towards Paradise
And all its blest — if such should be —
I will lift glad, afar-off eyes
Though it contain no place for me.
So, come what may, he will write, in the manner of his coming dedicatee. And after that, an anticipatory list:
Books taken to France
Hardy’s (Golden Treasury) Poems
Conrad, Nostromo and A Set of Six
Lamb’s Essays and Letters (selection)
Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
This book list hardly seems to fit with the witty Georgian-Modern literary London scene in which Sassoon spent his leave. But it does show the poet on a more steady trajectory than he might want us to see. Is he really blown hither and yon by the brave ideas of all his witty and passionate friends? Or is he on course?
Sassoon will bring Hardy to France, he is dedicating his poems to Hardy, he is copying Hardy into his notebook, and instead of scoffing at patriotic effusion or objecting to it on humanist grounds, he is preparing an unflinchingly satiric attack that seems like a plausible imitation of what Hardy might have been as an angry young man. Before leaving Liverpool, Sassoon had attended a show at the Hippodrome–he had a good time, he thinks (this is the later, ironic voice, not the coiled satirist of early 1917)–but he fantasized about seeing a tank come charging down the stalls of the music hall, crushing the ignorant home-front jingoists…
So he’s working on a poem to that effect, and the full-protest Sassoon who will emerge this year is quite recognizable even now. He is inspired by Hardy, not by any Georgian poet, and he is unwilling to be modest (surely an all-but-essential precursor to poetic achievement). But he’s not being fair… he has never seen a tank and he has spent more time over the past six months fox hunting and golfing than in military tasks… but then again he is going back, now. I’ll let the voice of the memoir have the last word:
The situation was too complex for the shy and callow young man I was on that dreary February afternoon.
So we’ve had a lot of writing, today, and some turmoil–but all with very little war in it. And we haven’t heard from Rowland Feilding in a while… so, let’s.
Colonel Feilding is not the sort of man to be easily led into off-balance opinions or to criticize without carefully considering his own position and responsibilities. But he has promised utter honesty in his letters to his wife, and he does not hide his feelings about the grim reach of the war. This short letter, though devoid of “victimized bitterness,” becomes an accidentally effective commentary on the “imbecile wastefulness” of the war.
February 11, 1917. Kemmel Shelters.
I returned to the battalion last evening, and found that the enemy had been shelling my battalion in Camp. It is in Divisional Reserve—training in a safe (!) place. Four have been killed and nine wounded, and the huts so badly
smashed that two Companies have had to be moved elsewhere.
The place was properly knocked about, and it was a surprising bit of shelling, too, seeing that the huts were unusually well hidden in a wooded depression, in the lee of Mount Kemmel, and screened by the protection which that steep hill affords. Personally, I could have sworn that these huts, at any rate, would have been safe from bombardment.
But no place is safe…