Bayoneting With Edward Heron-Allen; Wilfred Owen’s “Last Words”

First, today, another very entertaining entry from our great latecomer, Edward Heron-Allen. He is recently commissioned, still under training, and very much in England. But he has advanced, thematically, as far as the “Bull Ring.” Other than this not being in France–and the instructor not being notably Scottish–it fits the pattern well:

…I was detailed to watch advanced bayonet practice which was extremely interesting and real. The men start in a trench, go ‘over the top’ in waves, across a plateau of sand jumping obstacles, and over a ditch into a trench where they stab recumbent sand bags, painted to represent Huns. They form on the other side and rush a row of hanging Hun-bags, and then make a final charge on the last trench, which means a six foot jump landing with one’s bayonet well through another row of Hun-bags. A concealed instructor pulls wires which make Hun heads bob up on the way, and you have to jab those en passant. As the men yell furiously the whole time the scene is cataleptically exhilarating to watch, and the men evidently enjoy it vastly. I should not care to do it myself![1]

 

Wilfred Owen, though he could hardly top this, also has some exhilaration to share. In this rather strange letter to his mother, he describes how exploring the older parts of Scarborough with a Belgian painter led to an aesthetic euphoria.

Last night I took an artist johnny—called Claus…  (a fat old tub, with round spectacles, and a conical head) …to Scarborough, where there’s not a house built since 1780, not a street much wider than Claus, and miles of it, mind you, miles of glorious eighteenth century. It was twilight…

Not a soul in the alleys.

Not a lamp lit. A dim moon—and the Past.

And we got excited. What excited us, who shall say? We jumped about, we bumped about, We sang praises, we cursed Manchester; we looked in at half open doors and blessed the people inside. We saw Shakespere in a lantern, and the whole of Italy in a Balcony. A tall chimney became a Greek Column; and in the inscriptions on the walls we read romances and philosophies.

It was a strange way of getting drunk. I wonder if the people in the officers’ bar suspected that evening how much more cheaply a man can get fuddled on fresh air and old winding passages?

Very nice, and refreshingly un-1918: it’s a passage that throws us back to Baudelaire or ahead to Dylan, c. 1965.

But it’s still 1918, and euphoria is not all that Owen has been experiencing:

I am sorry you have disturbing and daylight-lingering dreams. It is possible to avoid them: by proper thinking before sleep. I confess I bring on what few war dreams I now have, entirely by willingly considering war of an evening. I do so because I have my duty to perform towards War.

Sudden seriousness. And, perhaps, another explanation for the metaphorical drunkenness. Owen seems to have exorcised another segment of his war experience in producing this poem draft, which he prefaces with a stern warning to his mother, whose Christian faith he risks offending:

There is a point where prayer is indistinguishable from blasphemy. There is also a point where blasphemy is indistinguishable, from prayer.

As in this first verse:

Last Words[2]

‘O Jesus Christ!’ one fellow sighed;
And kneeled, and bowed, tho’ not in prayer, and died.
And the Bullets sang—‘In vain’
Machine Guns chuckled ‘Vain’
Big Guns guffawed ‘In vain’

‘Father and Mother!’ one boy said.
Then smiled—at nothing like a small child; being dead.
And the Shrapnel Cloud
Slowly gestured ‘Vain!’
The falling Splinters muttered ‘Vain’.

‘My Love!’ another cried, ‘My love, my bud!’
Then, gently lowered, his whole face kissed the mud.
And the Flares gesticulated, ‘Vain’
The Shells hooted, ‘In vain’
And the Gas hissed, ‘In vain’.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Journal, 165-6.
  2. This will be revised and re-titled "The Last Laugh."
  3. Collected Letters, 533-34.

The Master of Belhaven Has Great Fun; Rudyard Kipling Tries Out a Jest; Isaac Rosenberg in the Gloomiest Depths

We have a jarring triple contrast for today, a century back–a diary entry and two letters, each in a very different mood and aspect.

We begin, wrong-footedly, with the comic relief. The Master of Belhaven is nothing if not a sportsman. But those Germans, on the other hand, they really do put up a poor show…

I walked over to Welch’s detached section with him in the afternoon. He lent me a gun and we put up quite a lot of partridges. The birds are very wild now, and we did not get any. However, it was great fun. The Hun, who is no sportsman, amused himself by putting out shrapnel not far off, but they were too high to be at all dangerous.[1]

 

Then it’s an abrupt and painful transition from a colonel with the leisure to shoot (at) partridges on a lark–and the good breeding to forgive the birds of the battle zone their wildness–to a private with very much less in the way of time and sport and fun. Isaac Rosenberg, is less interested in the birds of No Man’s Land than most of our poets are–but he’s a dab hand with the rats.

Dear Mr Bottomley

I do not know when I begin a letter whether to plunge right to the depths into the gloomiest of Byronic misanthropy (as indeed, my inclination pushes me to,) or be nice and placid & acquiescent about things. I know if I didn’t explain myself properly Id only appear weak & stupid, & as the situation does not give me the chance to explain myself, it must be left unexplained just yet, at least…

I have been transfered… my own Batt is broken up & what was left of them mixed with other Battalions… Poetry has gone right out of me I get no chance to even think of it. My ‘Unicorn’ is dead, & it will need a powerful Messiah to breathe life into its nostrils. I could more easily draw than write but the weather is too cold for that, if I did get the time… Thank you for what you say about my ‘Kolue’ speech. If the war does not damage me completely Ill beat that yet.

Yours sincerely,

Isaac Rosenberg[2]8.

These sorts of bulletins–“it’s miserable, but let us hold onto hope”–are the best Rosenberg has been able to manage, of late. But if poetry really has been driven right out of him then he is, at least, still holding on to the last fragments he was able to produce before his transfer… we shall see them soon.

 

Speaking of production, here’s a strange one. Rudyard Kipling and several cronies have recently decided to begin the distinctly sui generis (and extremely English) project of composing a sham fifth book of Horatian odes. In this letter to C. R. L. Fletcher, then, we might expect to find Kipling in his mode of master yarn-spinner–and we do. He is excited by the game, there is a burst of creativity couched in hale-fellow encouragements… but it’s not all fun and games.

Bateman’s, Burwash, Sussex

Feb. 17.1918.

Dear Fletcher

…I think highly of any good “fake” and the idea of the original M.S.–of a decent rich brown tinct–is very fine indeed. Thus are Immortal Works built up! ‘Only hope we’ll have some paper left after the war! Facsimiles cost like sin: but I foresee an edition de luxe in the years to come!

And I think too the notion of fresh hands in the game is fun. We oughtn’t to keep the fun to ourselves…

All good luck be with you.

Ever

RK.

This selection of the letter more or less captures the tone. He is writing, again, about the project of composing odes in the style of Horace and rendering them in Latin. And that’s not all. He is thinking, too, about that collection of short ancient verses known to classicists (and well-educated 19th century Englishmen more generally) as the Greek Anthology. The anthology is rich in epitaphs, and Kipling has been mulling these over. There is a post-script–and it doesn’t sound like a joke.

P.S. How does this go into Greek. It’s out of the sepulchral unchristian epigrams of the missing parts of the Anthology:

On an R. A. Subaltern

Death fell upon my Son from out of the skies while
he was laughing, they tell me, at some jest. Would
I had known what it was. It would serve me through
the years when I shall not laugh.

The grammar is mixed I think.[3]

The striking thing is that this epigram–which Kipling proposes, perhaps jokingly, to render into Greek–is not at all lighthearted. It’s a suitably stoic ancient-style epigram, one that would fit well, perhaps, with what the mourners on the hither side of the generational gulf might want their public sentiments about their “fallen” sons to sound like. Which is why this epigram, published later in revised form, is often presented as if it is written by Kipling about his boy Jack. And, of course, how could his only son be entirely absent from his mind? But there is no mention of Jack, here–instead it is the classical heritage, on the one hand, and the Royal Artillery (Jack Kipling was an infantry officer) on the other…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 457.
  2. Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head, 117-
  3. Letters, IV, 483-4.

A Petty Victory for Wilfred Owen, and a Harsh Defeat for the Royal Welsh

Despite the constant false alarms along the Western Front, we are now entering another quiet period on the line. So we’ll catch up with Wilfred Owen, writing today both to his mother and to his hapless rhymester cousin. To his mother, Owen makes a sweetly grandiose gesture, using the fruits of his labor to fan the flames warming the heart of his greatest supporter…

Tues. Morning.

…The £ 1 : 1 : 0., my first proud earnings, must be used on superb coal-fires in your room. It is only poetic justice. Stoke up!

I have ‘written’ profusely last week, but nothing of a topical nature…

But Owen has another correspondent with whom he’d like to discusses his earnings. He sends an amusing postcard to Leslie Gunston, who has been offended by Owen’s experiments with pararhyme (and also, perhaps, by Owen’s manifest success and rather cool response to his own effortful verses). Owen sought to amuse (or annoy) Gunston by altering a popular comic postcard to read as follows:

A Little Health, A Little Wealth, A Little
House, and Freedom—and at The End,
I’d Like a Friend, And Every Cause to Need Him.

The internet being bountiful, I located what seems to be another copy of the original post-card, as written on by a different (but also ironic/scornful) card-sender, here. Owen’s message is straight to the point: I am confident in my methods, thank you very much.

Quite as delighted to have your blunt criticism as your first postcard. I suppose I am doing in poetry what the advanced composers are doing in music. I am not satisfied with either. Still I am satisfied with the Two
Guineas that half-hour’s work brought me. Got the Cheque this m’ng!

Your W.E.O.[1]

Now hold on a second: one guinea (£ 1/1/0, i.e. one pound and one shilling, so 1/20th more valuable than a pound, and much more than 1/20th more prestigious) or two? Is he shortchanging mother dearest, or bragging to cousin-left-behind?

 

In an even lighter vein, we’ll close with the entirety of today’s entry in Doctor Dunn’s chronicle of the 2nd Royal Welsh. It is a grim harbinger of the dour struggles that will loom large in the ruck and scrum of modern times:

February 12th: The Welsh Division played disappointing Rugby against New Zealand, and was beaten by 14 points to 3.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 531.
  2. The War the Infantry Knew, 445.

Edward Heron-Allen Analyzes a Word of Command; Wilfred Owen Has Made an Influential Friend; Vera Brittain’s Poetic Ambitions, and What Comes Out in the Wash

We can sketch Siegfried Sassoon‘s leave in London only in appointment-book fashion. Yesterday it was friends and music; today, family. Sassoon spent the day at an aunt’s house, his mother having come up from Kent for the day.[1]

 

Meanwhile, back in Kent, Edward Heron-Allen, still learning the ropes of infantry drill, has a quite surprisingly funny rendition of the strange contortions of drill-ground commands. These are choreographic orders that began as simple English words but have been altered by years of shouting at men who already know the stereotyped commands into what seems like a foreign language. Heron-Allen is, after all, a splendid linguist…

…The colonel appeared and marched us off. His word of command is astonishing when you don’t know it. First an extraordinary gurgle, which I afterwards learned to mean ‘4th Queen’s Own’, and then, with great lucidity ‘mootwryicolleroo’ which the intelligent military interpreted as ‘move to the right in a column of route’, and so we marched off…[2]

 

And Wilfred Owen, back in Scarborough, is belatedly realizing the social heights to which his friendship with Sassoon has delivered him, as he will describe in tomorrow’s letter to his mother.

Yesterday, I had tea in the Club in Scarborough, and taking up Who’s Who was amazed to find that Roderick Meiklejohn who invited me to dinner at the Reform was Mr. Asquith’s private secretary while Mr. Asquith was in office…

Meiklejohn, as it happens, will spend tomorrow morning with Sassoon…[3]

 

We also learn, today, that Vera Brittain has been rather busier than she has led us to believe. Not only has she written enough poetry for a small book, but she has sent them off–bereft of influential literary friends though she is–to a publisher, received a favorable reply, and already written to her brother about it. Verses of a V.A.D. is on it’s way, and Lieutenant Brittain sounds just a bit jealous…

Italy, 10 February 1918

Very glad to hear that Erskine Macdonald was so favourable in his criticism; it is certainly rather unusual–I should think–for him to half-finance a first volume of any sort…

I am extremely busy again with all sorts of work–chiefly range practices and difficulties connected with washing men and clothes. The most excellent system of giving a man clean underclothes every time he went to the baths which we had in France cannot apparently be done here. The present system is to have a Corps laundry; all kinds of units send clothing when asked to do so: the result is that the company has to have (say) 50 shirts, 45 pants, 55 socks, and 30 undervests collected. This of course leaves a lot of men without a change of certain garments; then at some time or other they will carefully return to you washed 35 shirts, 50 pants, 40 socks, and 20 undervests. At present we are doing some of the washing ourselves. A few people come over and drop bombs when the moon is favourable — otherwise there is not much war going on.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 211; Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 441.
  2. Journal, 153.
  3. Collected Letters, 530.
  4. Letters from a Lost Generation, 389.

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.

Ralph Hamilton on a Flurry of Deadly Folly; Elizabeth Bishop In the Waiting Room

Just one brief note from the war, today, and then a very strange centennial… the most powerful straight-back-to-a-particular-moment-in-time poem I’ve ever read. It has nothing to do with this project except its date…  and also consciousness of the war and a deep binary (i.e. in the sense of an older writer looking back upon an incident as recorded by her younger mind) contemplation of the the mystery of the human condition. So, upon reflection, it has everything to do with this project, albeit in a distant sense. I’ve been really looking forward to this bit…

 

But first, Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven is here to steady us on an excitable morning. His diary reminds us of the confusion and deadly silliness of the war of attrition as he analyzes a sudden artillery duel on his sector of the line. He tosses off his conclusion, but one imagines that it probably took some extensive detective work to figure out what actually took place…

As far as I can make out this morning, nothing really happened, except that both sides lost their heads. The Germans started the excitement by seeing spooks. They bombed their own wire and put up their S.O.S., whereupon our people thought they were going to be attacked and sent up our S.O.S. Both artilleries promptly replied, and for the next half-hour there was hell in the front lines. I fancy it was fairly expensive for both sides, as I imagine there were a lot of casualties.[1]

“Expensive,” that is not just in the financial cost of huge amounts of ammunition fired to no strategic effect, but in terms of blood and suffering.

 

Humanity: confused, frightened, driven mad with fear and the strangeness of the other–yet beginning to see, perhaps, in glimpses of insight, that though we are all utterly alone, we are also all utterly alone together. We are human beings, clotted into tribes of strange and foolish other human beings, and we may (or may not) have long lives to live among them…

 

Now, I’ve read a lot of Great War literature and history and poetry and memoir over the past twenty years, especially during the last four. (I’m pounding through two mediocre novels set this March, as we speak!) But, happily, I do find some time to read some other things as well. One of this past year’s projects was Elizabeth Bishop (born 1911) who produced a smallish oeuvre of poetry in a variety of forms and moods. This smallish oeuvre is richly studded, however, with tremendous, unforgettable poems. I had read some of her brilliant descriptive poems of people and animals, I knew the perfect villanelle about losing things, but I had never read In the Waiting Room. There must be other brilliant poems of remembered childhood experience, but if I knew of any even approaching this one I have long forgotten them…

I don’t like to post entire long poems here, for several reasons, so please follow the link above and read the whole thing (it’s only a few pages). Or read below: I will excerpt a few large sections, perforating her meditative brilliance with my eager interjections.

 

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist’s waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.

 

Young Elizabeth then picks up the February 1918 National Geographic and reads. Something about the dramatic presentation of human difference that the magazine offers–there are Brave White Explorers, there is man killed in tribal fighting, there are African women, with their breasts hanging low, horrifying the proper American girl–stirs her sense of self, and then, as overhead sound merges with the thoughts bred from words, an epiphany strikes.

 

Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
–Aunt Consuelo’s voice–
not very loud or long.
I wasn’t at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn’t. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I–we–were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days
and you’ll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
–I couldn’t look any higher–
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

 

No, nothing could. To be at once aware of the full force of self-hood, of the boundaries that separate your own little body from the shuffling, yelping others around you, and of your full membership in a species so familiar and yet so terrible and strange…

And it’s three days before her seventh birthday. (The poem itself was written many decades later, when Bishop was belatedly being recognized as one of the century’s great poets.)

Worcester, MA, is far from Templeux, where those two panicky barrages are falling on two sets of trenches despite the fact that neither gallant infantry officers nor wicked staff brass hats actually harbored any murderous raid plans for this morning, a century back.

But I haven’t bent the rules of this project as far as it might seem. At the very end of this childish/timeless/rivetingly powerful poem, we will have the date as well as the reminder of the war. National Geographic may point to a different way of seeing the world (with all its own problems), but looming over this day, a century back–and over young Elizabeth’s new perception of her humanity and her Elizabeth-ness in all its strangeness–is the fact that humanity is conducting one of its most destructive experiments yet.

 

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 451.

Olaf Stapledon’s Little Twiddly Scrawls; Siegfried Sassoon’s Idyll Turns to Remorse; Edward Heron-Allen on Parade

Olaf Stapledon remains committed to the principle that the experiential gulf (not to mention the two hemispheres) that separates him from his beloved Agnes can best be bridged by creating familiarity with his circumstances. This letter isn’t quite up to his previous high standard of literary teleportation, but it operates on the same implicit premise: if I can write you into knowing the people I’m with, it will be like we are closer together…

SSA 13

4 February 1918

Yesterday I wrote you a scrap in a hurry; today I am beginning again or rather tonight, and under awkward circumstances, for I am at an aid post with three garrulous Englishmen and two garrulous Frenchmen. The latter have gone but the former remain. One of them is making cocoa, which is now an almost unheard of luxury. He is the well-bred and well-built younger [George Romney] Fox, our best runner, and a charming lad although he is a bit too pleased with himself. Another is one [William] Meredith, formerly in Cadbury’s works, a keen self-educating lad who suffers from two disadvantages, being neither of the well-to-do nor of the proper “working” class. He somehow always errs on the side of formality and over respectability; but he also is a good lad, a hard worker too. The third is the great and famous inhabitant of Liverpool, Alec Gunn, called the mitrailleuse on account of his endless rattle of talk. . . .

Goodnight. These silly little black twiddly scrawls that are our only lines of communication! Goodnight.[1]

It’s Stapledon’s gift–and his dogged project–to keep two hearts close together as their time apart stretches to many years.

 

And it’s Siegfried Sassoon‘s gift to house two different personalities within himself–Outdoor Sassoon (or George Sherston, the Fox-Hunting Man) and Indoor Sassoon, the poet. Today, however, he once again works from the outside in.

Hacked to meet—four miles from Limerick. Fine sunny morning. Rode Sheeby’s big bay mare…  [the fox] ran very twisting (a vixen). Slow hunting for about forty minutes, ran toward Limerick, and killed at a farm… A poorish day, but very jolly… Happy days.

Sassoon’s previous few days of “jolly” hunting produced poems that dwelt in the happy hunting grounds of his mind, keeping the war well in the background. But today this “jolly,” “happy” diary mood somehow twisted, vixen-like to produce a bloody, angry, haunted war poem in his old style.

 

Remorse

Lost in the swamp and welter of the pit,
He flounders off the duck-boards; only he knows
Each flash and spouting crash,—each instant lit
When gloom reveals the streaming rain. He goes
Heavily, blindly on. And, while he blunders,
‘Could anything be worse than this?’—he wonders,
Remembering how he saw those Germans run,
Screaming for mercy among the stumps of trees:
Green-faced, they dodged and darted: there was one
Livid with terror, clutching at his knees…
Our chaps were sticking ’em like pigs. ‘O hell!’
He thought—‘there’s things in war one dare not tell
Poor father sitting safe at home, who reads
Of dying heroes and their deathless deeds.[2]

 

Sassoon does this sort of thing very well. What should I add? Either you are pummeled by the force of the imagery and the rhythm of the verse into a sharper awareness of the horror of war, or you are put off by the oversimplifications that such a direct assault necessitates. Or both…

 

Finally–this is an awkward segue, given that this is an older man, safe at home, and very impressed with his own father’s deathless deeds–we mark a major change in the circumstances of Edward Heron-Allen. After several years (but only a few entries, here) of life as a not-so-young and slightly cracked home-front volunteer, he is now to begin life as an elderly subaltern: he began training with his very own platoon of Sussex volunteers, today, a century back, at Tunbridge Wells.

Here I am at the end of the first day and if it is all going to be like today it will be interesting…

Perhaps: but the diary is not–unless it can be excerpted for the purpose of not-so-gentle mockery. The ankle deep mud on the parade ground at Tunbridge Wells gave Heron-Allen “an idea of the state of things in Flanders…” except for the fact that in the very next sentence they give up bayonet training because it is “too filthy,” and have a lecture instead. Just like in Flanders.[3]

But we will look in on Heron-Allen as his time in training camp continues… it will get more interesting for him, and for us as well…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 280.
  2. Diaries, 209-10.
  3. Journal, 141-44.

Rowland Feilding at Notre Dame D’Amiens; Cynthia Asquith Sits to Tonks; Osbert Sitwell’s Modern Abraham

Yesterday we looked ahead, toward the German offensive and the beginning of the end. But who could know such things? It’s February 2nd, and the war goes on as it has for years now. There is time, yet, to see all the old sights, as Rowland Feilding did today, a century back.

February 2, 1918. Continental Hotel, Paris.

I got up at 4.15 this morning and caught a train at Roisel, reaching Amiens about ten o’clock. There I had
lunch, bought a few things, and of course visited the Cathedral.

The contrast between the destruction I have left behind and this wonderfully majestic work of man was quite bewildering. High Mass was being sung as I went in, and as the great organ thundered out again and again, it made the air and even the ground throb.

I reached Paris at 4.30, and leave again to-morrow at noon. I have just been to Gaby Deslys’ “Revue” at the Casino, and as it is past midnight I will go to bed.

Yes, nothing says “war of attrition in very-late-nineteenth-century Europe” than the irony of proximity being applied to Gothic arches and Picard trenches.[1]

 

That’s all I have as far as the war narrowly construed–but there also a pastel and a poem, both involving a crossing of paths. The pastel is by Henry Tonks, the great artist-teacher of the Slade School, where he has taught artists among our writers as well as fictional artists and created by our writers. His war work is unique, powerful, and unsettling (and, unlike today’s production, available online): he has been aiding pioneering plastic surgeons in their work, drawing the stages of facial reconstruction of some of the war’s most grievously wounded.

Tonks took a break from this work today, a century back, to paint Cynthia Asquith, and talk of friendship.

Saturday, 2nd February

Bicycle through the rain to sit to Tonks. I was feeling dyspeptic and cross. Talked of the difficulty of preventing one’s life from being overrun by friends to the complete destruction of leisure. He said he was quite deliberately complet, like a hotel. He didn’t want to make any new friends, any more than he wanted more furniture in his room. He was pleased with his work on me, but I hope he will subdue the roses in my cheeks. He commented on the funny way I suddenly brought my mouth, as it were, to ‘attention’, and I promised to let it ‘stand at ease’…[2]

 

And the Nation, today, published another anti-war poem, inadvertently upping the ante of competition among two pairs of new 1917 friendships. Osbert Sitwell is not a great poet, but he’s not one to shy from the big idea or let the main chance slip. (He, too, likes clichés.) Today’s poem takes on a trope that what will come to seem, with hindsight, a bit obvious: the biblical drama of divinity, obedience, and perhaps even–depending on how you look at these things–the madness of blind faith.

Sitwell–who, together with his brother and sister, made a splash of sorts at the Great Colefax Gathering in December–is eager to strengthen a new friendship. To read the poem one might guess–and correctly–that Sitwell is not only an Angry Young Man but one with a particularly vexed relationship with his father. But the theme, I think–and I think he thinks–is indebted to Sassoon’s example. Hence the horrid caricature of the old profiteer… not to mention the fealty indicated by the dedication.

 

The Modern Abraham

To Siegfried Sassoon

His purple fingers clutch a large cigar—
Plump, mottled fingers, with a ring or two.
He rests back in his fat armchair. The war
Has made this change in him. As he looks through
His cheque-book with a tragic look he sighs:
“Disabled Soldiers’ Fund” he reads afresh,
And through his meat-red face peer angry eyes-
The spirit piercing through its mound of flesh.

They should not ask me to subscribe again!
Consider me and all that I have done—
I’ve fought for Britain with my might and main;
I make explosives—and I gave a son.
My factory, converted for the fight
(I do not like to boast of what I’ve spent),
Now manufactures gas and dynamite,
Which only pays me seventy per cent.
And if I had ten other sons to send
I’d make them serve my country to the end,
So all the neighbours should flock round and say:
“Oh! look what Mr. Abraham has done.
He loves his country in the elder way;
Poor gentleman, he’s lost another son!”

 

As he was published in the same paper so recently, it would be likely that Wilfred Owen saw this poem, or will very shortly. He wouldn’t overlook a new poem by a young name he had surely heard of, especially one dedicated to Sassoon. So this was likely something like a reminder, or challenge, or spur, or goad… in any event Owen, too, will soon tackle the same subject, and with considerably more subtlety…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 250.
  2. Diaries, 407.

Three Poems for February: Edmund Blunden’s Deceitful Calm, Vera Brittain’s Dream Grown Vain, and Siegfried Sassoon’s Upteenth Idyll; Thomas Hardy Looks to Past Collapse; Kipling and the War at Home; Happy Birthday Muriel Spark

And so we come to February, a strange month. It will be slow, here (though enlivened by two strange and awesome childhood visitations by later writers, on which see below). In fact, it’s really the last “slow” month of the war. Is the end in sight? Well, in hindsight, yes. But, then, of course, to see February in this light is a violation of the terms of our compact. Yes, a German offensive is expected, and yes, the strategists see this spring and summer as crucial, because Germany is under tremendous pressure to strike a winning blow after the collapse of Russia and before the weight of the United States can turn the tide on the Western Front. But “the strategists” have been promising breakthroughs for several years now, and we can hardly be look complacently forward and congratulate them for being right. And yet…

I have three poems, today–one dated to the day and the other two appearing as “month poems.” And the first one, at least, is a bit of a cheat. The argument I’m trotting out here is that this February occupies a doubly ironic position: there is no reason to expect–or so the poor bloody infantry would feel–any change, any way to remember another cold, muddy month in the fourth winter of a war of attrition. And yet there is no way to remember this month other than as the month before[1] the last German offensive, before everything changed.

On the other hand, many things stay the same, so we’ll hear from two great Victorian writers as well. And on the other, other hand, “everything changed;” so we’ll also hear from a Modern woman as yet unborn–this morning, that is–and yet at the top of her game.

 

Gouzeaucourt: The Deceitful Calm

How unpurposed, how inconsequential
Seemed those southern lines when in the pallor
Of the dying winter
First we went there!

Grass thin-waving in the wind approached them,
Red roofs in the near view feigned survival,
Lovely mockers, when we
There took over.

There war’s holiday seemed, nor though at known times
Gusts of flame and jingling steel descended
On the bare tracks, would you
Picture death there.

Snow or rime-frost made a solemn silence,
Bluish darkness wrapped in dangerous safety;
Old hands thought of tidy
Living-trenches!

There it was, my dears, that I departed,
Scarce a plainer traitor ever! There too
Many of you soon paid for
That false mildness.[2]

 

So Edmund Blunden, looking back only to look ahead, and writing yet another agonized version of the survivor’s poem, this time in retrospect and prospect at once.

 

Vera Brittain, barred by her gender from any sense of comradeship in the face of death–indeed, from any tighter embrace of danger (she’s done as much as she can, in that regard, to get to a hospital in France)–is already a three-fold survivor. Her poem–written this month, a century back, amidst the calm that Blunden would remind us is about to be disturbed–looks steadfastly back at the first love she lost. This is more than personal mourning or general disenchantment. Given the short lines and traditional rhymes this reads, at first, as a rather prim poem–which makes the sharpness of its despair surprising: a pretty thing with jagged edges.

 

Roundel

(“Died of Wounds”)

 

Because you died, I shall not rest again,
    But wander ever through the lone world wide,
Seeking the shadow of a dream grown vain
            Because you died.

 

I shall spend brief and idle hours beside
    The many lesser loves that still remain,
But find in none my triumph and my pride;

 

And Disillusion’s slow corroding stain
    Will creep upon each quest but newly tried,
For every striving now shall nothing gain
            Because you died.[3]

 

 

Siegfried Sassoon is also sad today–“very sad,” in fact.

February 1 (Limerick, Maine)

Went to the Meet… but weather very wet and stormy, and hounds went home from the meet… Twenty-three miles for nothing… Very sad.

Once again Outdoor Sassoon comes home from a hunt and writes a poem, its music sweet and its sentiment… sentimental.

 

Idyll

In the grey summer garden I shall find you
With day break and the morning hills behind you
There will be rain-wet roses; stirring wings;
And down the wood a thrush that wakes and sings.
Not from the past you’ll come, but from that deep
Where beauty murmurs to the soul asleep:
And I shall know the sense of life re-born.
From dreams into the mystery of morn
Where gloom and brightness meet. And standing there
‘Til that calm song is done, at last we’ll share
The league-spread quiring symphonies that are
Joy in the world, and peace, and dawn’s one star.

February 1[4]

 

And back in England, two great men of the older generation (two different older generations, really) cope with the war in very different ways. Sometimes it seems as if there are really only two modes of being an old (i.e. past military age) man in times like these: you either lament the war and all its foolish, backward, wickedness, or you fantasize about taking part.

Thomas Hardy, in this letter to Edward Clodd, takes the first course.

Max Gate, Dorchester, Feb 1. 1918.

My dear Clodd:

My best thanks for “The Question” which I shall read with interest, as I do everything of yours…

What a set-back this revival of superstition is! It makes one despair of the human mind. Where’s Willy  Shakespeare’s “So noble in reason” now! In another quarter of a century we shall be burying food & money with our deceased, as was done with the Romano-British skeletons I used to find in my garden.

Sincerely yours,

Th. Hardy.[5]

 

And then there’s Rudyard Kipling–a great writer in a different mode. In terms of sheer narrative energy and storytelling verve he is almost without peer–which says little enough about his life or his politics, which are both far less exemplary and entertaining. But I don’t comment, here, upon his imperialist writings, or his celebrations of the manly spirit of adventure. I just quote from this letter, about how, having sussed out the movements of the enemy by careful observance of the natives, he has to stay home this weekend to defend his castle against maliciously anti-Kipling rioters and other crypto-socialist/peacenik undesirables.

Bateman’s
Burwash
Sussex

Feb. 1.1918.

Dear Colonel–

I ought to go up to London tomorrow for the week end as I have a good deal of important business there. But I understand that some sort of “demonstration” with regard to the food question is being planned by some of the women in the village, for Saturday night, which is not the sort of thing to leave behind one as it might easily end in window-breakings and other things that would upset our maids…

There has been in our service a Mrs. Smith–sister of Fennels–who has been here as charwoman. She has suddenly given notice for no reason though she has no other work and has been carried by us through hard times; and I understand that she is among the women concerned.

This seems to point to Bateman’s as one of the objectives in the “demonstration.”

Very sincerely

Rudyard Kipling

The editor of Kipling’s letters notes that there are no records of disturbances in Sussex this weekend, a century back. There is general unhappiness about food shortages at home, and Kipling is far from the only person in Britain tempted to believe the rumors of nefarious doings afoot. But if any vengeful members of the working class laid siege to Kipling’s Keep, he seems to have annihilated them in complete secrecy… I imagine that his gardeners diligently kept the grass short, otherwise I would imagine the Great White Hunter stalking up and down in the long grass in pith helmet and tweeds, shouldering his elephant gun…[6]

 

Finally, to begin a week in which we observe (in a very clever and literary way!) the birthdays of two major women writers of the mid-20th century, I should mention that Muriel Spark was born today, a century back. This would be trivia rather than literature were it not for her brilliant, lacerating satirical story, “The First Year of My Life.” This makes Spark surely the youngest person to contribute a properly dated fictionalized memoir to A Century Back.

The story begins with these memorable sentences:

I was born on the first day of the second month of the last year of the First World War, a Friday. Testimony abounds that during the first year of my life I never smiled.

It’s viciously good–and, much like Blunden’s backward-looking song of February–it rather spoils the outcome of the war, noting her babyish progress at each of the major milestones to come. Reader, the war will end in November, and the unsmiling baby will grow up to write a great deal, and little enough of it smile-provoking…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Well, there were also three quiet weeks at the beginning of March...
  2. Later published in Undertones of War.
  3. Later published in Verses of a V.A.D.
  4. Diaries, 208-9.
  5. Collected Letters, V, 247.
  6. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 482.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Together

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Dear Mr. Bottomley

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

My address is

Pte I Rosenberg 22311

4 Platoon A. Coy

11th KORL BEF

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

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

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

IR[2]

 

References and Footnotes

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