Bob Nichols and Robbie Ross Rehearse the Big Show; Siegfried Sassoon Gallops Away

Yesterday found Siegfried Sassoon indoors, at a literary breakfast. Today, it is the outdoor man to the fore once again:

Rode to Witherley on Monday; weather frosty. Got on Chamberlayn’s black horse and rode on to Upton. Scent poor all day, but good fun, and lots of Atherstone hedges to jump. Back to Witherley.[1]

 

We’re accustomed to these turns from Sassoon, but this may have frustrated his friends more than most of his inscrutable reversals. Having left London behind, he had also left Robert Nichols with the impression that–despite his dislike of the first reading at which they performed together–he might still attend the next. Nichols and Ross have been cooking up a big charity reading, to be hosted by the society mover and shaker Sibyl Colefax two days hence, and Sassoon–his poetry increasingly popular, his person eminently presentable, and his past adding a dash of political protest glamor, would be an important adornment for the occasion…

Ross and Nichols had decided to go big–or wide, at least–in their selection of poets. In an attempt to secure their right flank, as it were, they had asked Edmund Gosse to chair the event. So they had a fussy but respectable and old-fashioned anchor for the evening, but they were also subjected to his whims: they have been told in no uncertain terms that the entire reading must be over in little more than an hour, all so that Gosse can go home and dress in time for a previous dinner engagement!

So it seems likely that the the rehearsal–scheduled for today, a century back–was somewhat stressful. In fact, it might not have come off at all: the sources are noncommittal on what actually took place, and no one explicitly mentions showing up and practicing. It might have been that the rehearsal was simply a meeting, and that they were forced to put their trust in Gosse’s experienced leadership and assume that whoever showed up would be able to read their own work effectively…

The roster, at least, is a very solid one. Gosse will lead the Georgian traditionalists and hopefully put the non readers/old money crowd at ease, while Nichols will represent the young war poets. Although he hopes that Graves and Sassoon will be his subsidiary musketeers (rather than absent fusiliers), it is probably clear to him that neither the camp commandant in Wales nor the hot-and-cold fox hunter are good bets to make it. So the plan is for Gosse to read for Graves while someone else will represent Sassoon if he doesn’t show.

There has also been a delicate getting-to-know-you lunch in which Gosse was introduced to the three Sitwells, who have been building their influence in Modernist circles through their Wheels anthologies. They have evolved a very… modern… strategy of shocking with their personal oddities and their commitment to all that is new while, inevitably, reassuring traditionalists like Gosse with their aristocratic pedigree and “beautiful manners.” Also passing muster with Gosse are a certain invective-slinging American banker/poet and a young schoolmaster-poet only just beginning to sample the brave new literary world… But Ezra Pound, another mooted possibility, has been ruled out: he had  insulted Gosse rather egregiously in a review of Gosse’s Swinbourne book, and that was a line that the organizers knew they could not cross…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 197.
  2. Ricketts, Strange Meetings, 135.

Isaac Rosenberg on Walt Whitman; Olaf Stapledon Talks Pacifism and Wishes for Sweeter Music

We get a rare look into the mind of Isaac Rosenberg today, a century back, as a letter survives that he wrote from hospital–where he is still recovering from the flu–to his old friend Joseph Leftwich. And his mind is about where we would expect it to be: careful to acknowledge the good fortune of a bad illness, and otherwise dwelling on poetry.

Dear Leftwich,

I am in hosp and have been for here about 2 months—lucky for me—I fancy—as I got out of this late stunt by being here. My brother Dave on the Tanks got a bullet in his leg and is also in hosp—also my wilder brother in the S.A.H.A. is in hosp—And now your letter has been buffeted into hosp, and that it has reached me must be looked upon as one of the miracles of this war.

Rosenberg then goes on to discuss a contemporary poet, and the forefather that they both admire:

We never spoke about Whitman—Drum Taps stands unique as War Poetry in my mind. I have written a few war poems but when I think of Drum Taps mine are absurd.

Well, then, with such a towering forebear, what can we do but bank the fires of ambition, sweep out the cold ashes of the muse’s inadequate fires, and abandon the cold hearth of–wait? What’s that you said?

However I would get a pamphlet printed if I were sure of selling about 60 at 1s each as I think mine may give some new aspects to people at home—and then one never knows whether you’ll get a tap on the head or not: and if that happens—all you have written is lost, unless you have secured them by printing. Do you know when the Georgian B. will be out? I am only having about half a page in it and its only an extract from a poem…

I. Rosenberg[1]

It flew by there, but it’s worth noting. There are two stated reasons for writing: first, because even if your work is not as strong as that of your honored predecessor it may still contain something new; second, because if you are killed, it’s likely that only the published work will survive.

 

And as for our own Walt Whitman, the multitudinous Olaf Stapledon (true, he’s a different sort of writer-dreamer, and not primarily a poet, and ardently in love with his fiancée, so all the parallels aren’t quite there, but he is a passionately effusive and unbounded writer serving the war’s wounded), we have an interesting series of observations on the state of militarism.

Annery
Agnes, 8 December 1917

Home again! Cheers! And after such a quick journey. . . . Missed the connection for Liverpool, had an elegant light lunch at Euston, embarked for L’pool at 2.20… I travelled third. In the compartment were an R[oyal]F[lying]C[orps] man, an R[oyal]G[arrison]A[rtillery] man, two infantry men one of whom was a New Zealander, and two young civilians of whom one was a discharged soldier. Very soon we got talking, first about the British and French fronts, then about the war in general. And I was surprised at the outspoken pacifism of everyone present. There was first a whisper then a trickle of remarks, then I said I was F[riends]A[mbluance]U[nit] and then everyone began to grow voluble about the war and the fact that if only some people weren’t making a profit out of it, it would have been wound up long ago. The RFC man came from Preston. He was very bitter, in his broad Lancashire dialect. The discharged soldier talked a lot of palpably extravagant rubbish, but on the main points he agreed entirely with the rest. His extravagance was chiefly merely anti-monarchical. (Not that I am a monarchist; but I don’t think the matter is worth bothering about.) The New Zealander was a lad who had not yet been to France, and all he cared for was looking at the scenery. But the rest! I assured them that the average French poilu was every bit as “bad” as they were, and they said, “No wonder.” . . .

And so here am I home again, writing at my old desk in the red room to the girl I have written to so often from this place. . . . Annery is the same as ever, & Caldy is as lovely as ever. I have treadmilled the old pianola as usual. But somehow this time it does not satisfy me at all. I want handmade music again, and I want it made by your hands.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Works, 357-8.
  2. Talking Across the World, 258-9.

Epilogue and End for John Lucy; Siegfried Sassoon Goes a-Hunting, and Confesses Cold Feet and Tight Nerves; Wilfred Owen Buys a Nice Table

If one were to suggest that this project might be losing its way, I would protest, and on the following two grounds. First, that its “way” was always to be determined by source-dowsing, as it were, and therefore there is no true path to stray from. We follow the wanderings of the writers we decided to read. Second, I would argue that whatever collective “way” does still exist now leads deliberately away from the war, because those soldier-writers who have survived into the dying days of 1917 intentionally keep their minds as far off the war as possible. And then I would concede that, yes, we’re wandering: there is little hope that the next big push will really be the one, and very little military aspiration left in the old soldiers’ writing. They are dispirited, and hunkering down for duration. And the irony, too, is beginning to turn: they have no idea how short that will be, and the strange form it will take.

But in any case, imaginary reader, don’t worry too much: today’s post will end bloodily and in a trench. But on the way there, today, a century back, we could hardly be less warlike.

Wilfred Owen, for instance, is going antiquing:

Friday Night

Dearest Mother,

…I went to an Auction yesterday, & got an antique side table wondrous cheap. It will arrive addressed to Father at Station. A beautiful old piece—to be my Cottage sideboard. There were none but Dealers at this sale! They would double the price in their shop, I was told…

your W.E.O.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon is out for blood, but in peacetime fashion:

Hunted Friday.

Good hunt from Trueleigh Osiers—forty-five minutes. Back to the Stone Staples and to Toddington. Rode Stamp’s old grey.[2]

After which he sat down to write to Robert Graves. And gradually, gradually, the war bleeds back in… until it’s everything again.

7 December

Dear Robert, I am having some leave and return to Litherland next Tuesday. I was passed General Service at Craiglockhart on November 26. The Board asked if I had changed my views on the war, and I said I hadn’t, which seemed to cause surprise. However Rivers obtained, previously, an assurance from a high quarter that no obstacles would be put in the way of my going back to the sausage machine.

I am not sure if I shall go up to this Poetry Show on Wednesday. It will be an awful bore, and means going up for the day from Liverpool. Bob Nichols came to Weirleigh for two nights and was charming. He is quite different when in town among a lot of people.

Ah, the poetry show. Despite surviving the first one, with Nichols, and despite the fact that this newly close friend is organizing the second one, Sassoon is planning to beg off. Typically, he was not direct about this to Nichols (or even explicit in this letter to Graves), who is still hoping that Sassoon will show up to play an agreeable second fiddle to himself in the “young war poets” category at what he hopes will be a notably star-studded charity reading.

Sassoon has a number of reasons for avoiding society, including shyness, laziness, paradoxical displeasure with social success,and  the awkwardness of having to explain the current status of his military career and feelings thereabout. And to come from Liverpool to London to read poetry for five minutes does indeed seem ridiculous… but it’s interesting that he couldn’t tell Nichols that. And less than surprising that Nichols might not understand: Sassoon, for all his flaws, writes to write; he writes as driven by his thoughts and passions, that is, and with a not-entirely-debauched sort of ambition. Nichols, it’s clear, has been bitten by the literary celebrity bug, and wants, unambiguously, to shine. He will be what he needs to be to do so.

Sassoon still wants to figure things out. And, to his credit, he is not willing to make peace with the war. He won’t move on and focus on a poetic career, with the war–and his relationship to it–unresolved. (He is, after all, a healthy young officer in uniform who has been insisting on going back to the front. Nichols has been discharged and Graves is in for the duration but with damaged lungs that will keep him from the front.)

But if Sassoon can’t figure everything out, then he would like, for the moment, to forget. He rides toward the war, or he rides against it.

I forgot the war to-day for fifty minutes when the hounds were running and I was taking the fences on a jolly old
grey horse.

But the safety curtain is always down and I can’t even dream about anything beyond this cursed inferno.

And then, in this letter to a trusted (more or less) friend and (more importantly) a fellow combatant, Sassoon is direct about another fear, the fear that’s always there, inseparable from that other ambition of facing the war and acquitting oneself honestly:

The air-raid on Thursday gave me an awful fright (I was at Half Moon Street). I don’t think I’ll be any good when I get to the war.

Yours S.S.[3]

 

Right–the war!

 

It would seem to be today, a century back, that brought an end to (the epilogue to) John Lucy‘s story. Still, after four days in close proximity to the Germans–sharing the same trench with only a barricade or “block” between them–he finds himself “queerly fascinated” and falls into an old soldier’s trap: trying to deter German belligerence through escalation. His men are being bombarded at close range by heavy German trench mortars–“pineapples”–to which he orders a response of “showers” of grenades.

My scheme did not work. The enemy stubbornly increased to rapid fire, and a bomb fight followed.

When his platoon runs low on ammunition, he orders a response of rifle fire, only, “So the affair simmered down.” Lucy, a responsible and practical officer, then orders a rifle inspection, because “such inspections retain a desirable normal atmosphere, and have a steadying effect.” But they also distract the platoon commanders conducting them. Lucy is telling off a man with a dirty rifle barrel when the next pineapple hits.

I saw my two feet above my head for a moment. I heard no explosion, but to myself I said: ‘This must be it.’ It was. I was benumbed, and I did not feel the slightest pain. Actually there were sixteen holes in me.

The bomb had landed behind the man Lucy was scolding, killing him. The sixteen fragments all passed through his body before wounding Lucy.

Part of my left buttock was blown away. A large lump of metal had passed through one thigh and bruised the other. Another piece was sticking in the bone of the side of my left knee. There were two wounds in my left arm, a small hole in my stomach, and my back was bleeding in a couple of places.

Only the stomach wound worries Lucy, but within a few hours an American doctor at a C.C.S. assures him not only that it is superficial but that he can rest easy in the knowledge that the American army will soon take care of the ongoing unpleasantness. With his revolver and his shredded greatcoat packed away as souvenirs, Lucy is evacuated by ambulance, next to a trembling and mute victim of “shell shock.” In the hospital, in Rouen, he will have a bed next to a man dying from a gangrenous wound in his back, and lie to him when the man asks him to look and see whether the wound is bad.

They took him out at night so that the other patients would not notice. He had died quietly. Alone.

The last dead man I saw in France.

But the writer survives. By the end of the month Lucy will be in England, out of danger, but neither out of pain or back home in Ireland. Each move opens his wounds. It’s a memoir worthy of the tired adjective “unflinching,” but it shrugs through the last pages quickly, and comes to this:

The war was over before they cured me.

I had seen the travail which God had given the sons of men to exercised therewith, and at the beginning of life it was proved to me that great calamity is man’s true touchstone.

THE END[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 515.
  2. Diaries, 197.
  3. Diaries, 196-7.
  4. There's a Devil in the Drum, 386.

Wilfred Owen: Here is Poetry; Sassoon’s Example Furthered, and Traduced; Cynthia Asquith and Duff Cooper on the Air Raid–and (at Long Last!) a Discussion of Rasputin’s Endowment

Wilfred Owen is proving himself to be a man at ease with many roles: he runs a military hotel by day, but in his free time he vies with antique dealers, writes chatty letters to his mother, composes febrile poetry, and attends to the delicate balance of camaraderie and flattery (not to say worshipful enthusiasm) best calculated to hold his new friend’s personal interest while also soliciting his critical attention…

6 December 1917 Scarborough

My friend,

I shall continue to poop off heavy stuff at you, till you get my range at Scarborough, and so silence me, for the time. This ‘Wild with all Regrets’ was begun & ended two days ago, at one gasp. If simplicity, if imaginativeness, if sympathy, if resonance of vowels, make poetry I have not succeeded. But if you say ‘Here is poetry,’ it will be so for me.

What do you think of my Vowel-rime stunt in this, and ‘Vision’? Do you consider the hop from Flea to Soul too abrupt?[1]

Alas, I am not sure which poem “Vision” refers to, But the “flea”  bit is Owen is asking Siegfried Sassoon‘s advice about “Wild with all Regrets.” Owen’s self-deprecating comments are not simply pro-forma: the draft needs work.

But there is no lack of confidence here either, as the second paragraph shows. Owen is asking advice, but he is also pointing to a significant innovation in his poetry, the use of what he calls “vowel-rime,” a sort of half-rhyming that is unconventional yet fits very well with what is emerging as his method: to write traditionally-structured poems that go deep into horror and pathos while avoiding triteness. To rhyme in a way more consonant with speech is to avoid chiming, to avoid sounding just a bit too much like Tennyson, who never sung of shell-shocked men or bodies torn apart by explosives.

 

 

Following Owen’s presentation of evidence on how Sassoon’s influence is advancing the cause of war poetry, we have a sort of cross-examination to deal with. If Sassoon’s lead in speaking directly of the war’s horrors, of taking a colloquial voice in formal diction (more Hardy than Kipling, in its antecedents; more Drummer Hodge than Barrack Room Ballads) and using it to criticize the war can spur Owen towards his masterpieces of anguish, can his example also be betrayed for the purposes of military propaganda?

Oh, yes indeed. Gilbert Frankau, a rare presence here but a vigorous one during the war as he worked to stake a claim to the literary territory a brow and a half down the ladder of popular taste from Robert Nichols, is eager to support the cause. Even–and, if we are to be consistent, this is much to his credit, in a way–to the point of insisting on the rightness of its most disturbing concomitants. Like shooting your own men for running away. After all, doesn’t one propagandize pour encourager les autres?

Today, a century back, Frankau wrote three stanzas of Sassoonish pith that one would like to read as bitterly ironic. But if the form is Sassoonish, the mode isn’t: this will be the preface to a long, unironic, and “pitiless” poem in which the spirit of the titular deserter is barred from Valhalla…

 

The Deserter

I’m sorry I done it, Major.’
We bandaged the livid face;
And led him out, ere the wan sun rose,
To die his death of disgrace.

The bolt-heads locked to the cartridges;
The rifles stead to rest,
As cold stock nestled at colder cheek
And foresight lined on the breast.

‘Fire’ called the Sergeant-Major.
The muzzles flamed as he spoke:
And the shameless soul of a nameless man
Went up in cordite-smoke.[2]

 

It is a commonplace–or should be–of the study of the war’s literature to remind the reader that pro-war poetry and deeply traditional stuff were overwhelmingly more popular than Sorley/Sassoon et. al., during the war, and that “Disenchantment” didn’t set in until the wave of memoirs crested ten years after the armistice. And yet… Frankau’s little piece is not Brooke or “In Flanders Fields” or even an updated “Light Brigade.” It’s not simply pro-war, pro-violence, or a troublingly untroubled depiction of violent death: it’s a vindictive celebration of cold-blooded killing. A bloody-minded jingo could surely argue that “such things are necessary,” and even make the point that these poetic chaps should be commended for reminding us of what happens to bloody cowards, the stick to the carrot of heroic satisfaction…

But that doesn’t it make it any less disgusting. Sassoon perfected the hammer-blow line-end to make us feel the terrible waste of war. Frankau reduces it once more to doggerel, and celebrates that waste.

 

So much for war literature in England, today.

And what about the war? Well, there was an air raid in the early morning, which Sassoon, in London between hunts, only mentions in passing when he returns to his diary (he will, however, have something more to say about it presently, in a letter). But Cynthia Asquith weighs in with a nice dismissive mot:

Thursday, 6th December

Was woken at five by guns—another air-raid at last! I like them with my dinner, not with my dreams, felt sleepy and bored…[3]

 

Which would be the best upper-class-diary-mention-of-the-air-raid were it not for Duff Cooper‘s entry in the field. Cooper, on leave for the weekend, manages to undermine his own recent idealization of the halcyon trip to Venice, then give us our most bizarre and tangential mention of the events of Russia’s conspicuously eventful year, and only then get to the air raid…

Dined… in Upper Berkeley Street… Bertie Stopford drove me home. He is a notorious bugger and was very attentive to me, saying I looked younger than when he last saw me which was in Venice before the war, He has been in Russia for some time and talked to me about the murder of Rasputin. After Rasputin was dead, Felix [Yusupov] Elston fell on the body and beat it. Felix told Stopford this himself. He suspects that there had been some relationship between Felix and Rasputin. The great charm of the latter for women was that when he had them he never came and so could go on forever. Also he had three large warts on his cock.

I have forgotten to mention that at five o’clock this morning there was an air raid…

So the bombing didn’t make the biggest impression, being less notable, on first consideration, than third-hand information about Rasputin’s genitalia. What a piece of work is man, etc.

Cooper, who had never yet been in London for a major air raid, found it strange. “It was difficult to realize that this was war going on in London.” But he was not unduly alarmed, and considered it a good first test of his courage under fire. He was back in bed before the anti-aircraft guns ceased….[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 514-15.
  2. See Hibberd and Onions, ed., Winter of the World, 190-1.
  3. Diaries, 377.
  4. Diary, 62.

George Coppard Bleeds Anew; Wilfred Owen Writes Himself into a Hospital Bed

We step away from Cambrai, today, and visit with one of its survivors, George Coppard, back in Blighty.

At lunchtime on 2 December, when I lay propped up in bed to deal with the welcome contents on my tray, I became aware of a change of sensation in my thigh. Throwing back the clothes I saw that the bandages were drenched in blood… I yelled out with fearful wind-up. A young nurse rushed across the ward, took one look at the bloody sight and dashed off. With amazing speed she returned with a young Indian doctor. He pressed hard on my groin and the bleeding stopped. The nurse lashed a rubber tourniquet above the wound, leaving me pillowless while the operating theatre was being made ready.[1]

A frightening experience… one of many, here, made significantly less worrisome for the reader by its being told in the first person.

 

Our only other tidbit for today, a century back, is this letter from Wilfred Owen to his mother. It’s a letter full of ordinary conversation… which mentions, in passing, the beginning of an extraordinary poem.

Sunday[2]

Dearest Mother,

I wrote in the middle of the week. Did you get a complete letter?

For I have discovered a page of writing to you among my papers. This afternoon I had a fire in my grate, which smokes horribly in the wind. Thus I finished an important poem this afternoon, in the right atmosphere…

The draft is currently entitled “Wild With All Regrets”–another Tennyson reference–and it carries a prospective dedication to Siegfried Sassoon. But the poem is not what we might expect. There is Owen’s sensuousness, and a version of his effusiveness, too, but this is nothing like a love poem. And yet there is that great access of empathy that makes even Owen’s most terrifying war poems seem something like a love poem… here, he takes on the voice of a terribly wounded soldier.

 

My arms have mutinied against me — brutes!
My fingers fidget like ten idle brats,
My back’s been stiff for hours, damned hours.
Death never gives his squad a Stand-at-ease.
I can’t read. There: it’s no use. Take your book.
A short life and a merry one, my buck!
We said we’d hate to grow dead old. But now,
Not to live old seems awful: not to renew
My boyhood with my boys, and teach ’em hitting,
Shooting and hunting, — all the arts of hurting!
— Well, that’s what I learnt. That, and making money.
Your fifty years in store seem none too many;
But I’ve five minutes. God! For just two years
To help myself to this good air of yours!
One Spring! Is one too hard to spare? Too long?
Spring air would find its own way to my lung,
And grow me legs as quick as lilac-shoots.

Yes, there’s the orderly. He’ll change the sheets
When I’m lugged out, oh, couldn’t I do that?
Here in this coffin of a bed, I’ve thought
I’d like to kneel and sweep his floors for ever, —
And ask no nights off when the bustle’s over,
For I’d enjoy the dirt; who’s prejudiced
Against a grimed hand when his own’s quite dust, —
Less live than specks that in the sun-shafts turn?
Dear dust, — in rooms, on roads, on faces’ tan!
I’d love to be a sweep’s boy, black as Town;
Yes, or a muckman. Must I be his load?
A flea would do. If one chap wasn’t bloody,
Or went stone-cold, I’d find another body.

Which I shan’t manage now. Unless it’s yours.
I shall stay in you, friend, for some few hours.
You’ll feel my heavy spirit chill your chest,
And climb your throat on sobs, until it’s chased
On sighs, and wiped from off your lips by wind.

I think on your rich breathing, brother, I’ll be weaned
To do without what blood remained me from my wound.

I wonder whether the soldier’s wish, in the middle of the poem, to bargain for new life by accepting the dirtiest of jobs, is an echo of Achilles’ thoughts in the Odyssey…

It is strange, isn’t it, to take a break from working on a piece like this to write an everyday letter-to-mum? But, then again, that is how we all live–only perhaps less intensely.

Here I have a certain amount of what might degenerate into worry, but it doesn’t with me. I think my chief trouble is watching that hundreds of windows are shaded at 4 p.m. And no unnecessary lights burning. I think I have hereditary aptitudes for this. I housekeep on a scale that would fairly stagger you and Mary, don’t you know…

I hope you’ll see Dunsden & the Vicar..

Ever your boy Wilfred

Am writing on my knee.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 130.
  2. Misdated to tomorrow by Owen's editor.
  3. Collected Letters, 513-4

Wilfred Owen: Oh! World You are Making for Me, Sassoon!; Kipling and Carstairs on the Chaos of Bourlon Wood

There is a long letter from Wilfred Owen to Siegfried Sassoon to get to, today, but comradeship rightly comes after battle.

First, then, two accounts of one of the most desperate days at Cambrai. We enter Bourlon Wood with Carroll Carstairs and the 3rd Grenadier Guards. I know almost nothing of Carstairs, but his writing is consistently interesting. He indulges a bit in the blasé roué routine, but only so far: when he comes to the worse of experience he slows down and concentrates, carefully reconstructing the sights and sounds of battle. But he doesn’t become merely a sort of responsible, roving eye or recording camera, either: Carstairs doesn’t spare himself, analyzing his own feelings even in the most trying circumstances.

It was about four in the morning when the Commanding Officer himself woke me. The candles, stuck in bottles on the table, burned as straight as on any altar. Each step up the twenty-two of the dugout was a conscious movement. Now we were at the entrance. The night was still, breathless. It had been raining. The air on our faces
left a moisture. The ground was soggy and the going difficult. The mud stuck to our boots until we were walking on huge pads.

We came upon No. 1 Company—mutes and shadows and something more than men. The Commanding Officer went down a dugout to have a last word with “Mary” Bowes-Lyon while I remained and joked with the two subalterns. How is it one can jest at such a time? It’s a question of tuning up. Laughter is the loophole through
which joy enters the soul. We were slipping along again. An interminable walk to go a few yards. But we had missed No. 2 Company and were out in No Man’s Land heading for the enemy. We made for the road which divided the Battalion. By the time we had reached Nos. 3 and 4 Companies they were forming up. Sinister shadows filling the gloom, as silent as the night itself, only the immense discipline of the Brigade of Guards kept one from remembering they were men cold and wet and dulled with fear…

At 6.20 our barrage came down and while I thought of the Battalion as a unit, five hundred men had begun their perilous progress towards the enemy trenches.

Carstairs is left in support: he sees other units attacking, a light barrage dropping, and then wounded men coming back. With the battle raging ahead, he moves up with the battalion HQ and reserves.

We had reached the foot of the village without a casualty. I was standing on ground newly won. To my left and right stretched deserted enemy entrenchments.

Near me lay two wounded Grenadiers. One was in a ditch full of water. They were remarkably quiet. I felt I should get them back somehow, but there were no stretcher bearers about.

Out of the house next to which I was standing appeared three Germans. They were holding up their hands. One had his foot in a bandage and was being helped along by the others. They looked frightened and miserable. While they are chattering in German, a wounded Grenadier turned up, quite off his head.

“That’s all right, sir,” he addressed me. “I’ll kill them.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” I remonstrated.

“Oh, that’s quite all right. You just leave them to me.” He threatened them with his rifle. The wounded German started to whimper and shuffled off.

The Grenadier followed, herding his little party together. He used his rifle like a shepherd’s staff. Could he have been a shepherd in civilian life? They disappeared in the direction of an out-house. Whatever happened to them? They were not heading strictly for the British lines.

And that’s all we learn.

At least this is a true war story: there may be honor and mercy, or, more likely it seems, madness and atrocity. But Carstairs has his own task and his own peril to worry about, and must move on… and so must we.

Another small party of prisoners appeared with a wounded Grenadier as escort. He was dazed and shaking with fright.

“Take a door off this house and have these prisoners carry back this wounded man.” But he did not understand.
The prisoners stood nervously about wishing to be gone. I showed them what I wanted done and they complied with alacrity.

Soon they were off, carrying the wounded Grenadier. It must have been a heavy load. I could not help fearing they would drop him half way in their eagerness to get out of danger. But if they had any thought of doing so it was intercepted by a German shell which burst in their midst after they had gone two hundred yards.

More prisoners turning up, removed another door from a house, on which they placed the man lying in the ditch of water.

Suddenly a large group of Germans approached. Their leader was a big man and the rest followed with a martial tread that contrasted oddly with their upraised hands and white handkerchiefs, energetically waved by some. One or two dodged into houses, but the rest marched on until they had reached us. The big man addressed me and I felt like a traffic policeman as I pointed to the British lines and watched them hurry off. Messages arrived from Nos. 3 and 4 Companies. They had captured their objectives, they were held up by heavy German machine-gun fire, they had suffered considerably and were in need of reinforcements. No word from either Nos. 1 or 2 Companies—a bad sign.

The Commanding Officer turned up. I saluted as though on parade.

He looked anxious. “We must go up and see what is happening.”

Together we proceeded up the main street of Fontaine-Notre-Dame, down which machine-gun bullets were pouring with the volume of water from a fire-hose. We hugged the houses to minimize the danger of being hit.

We reached the cross-roads and I marvelled that a man could get so far and remain alive. We were in the van of the battle. It seemed a miracle had happened to me.

Knollys greeted us. His Company Commander had been wounded. He was holding his position with about forty men and one machine-gun. It was almost all that was left of the Battalion. Nos. 1 and 2 Companies had  disappeared into the blue. They had been, as a matter of fact, wiped out. All officers (including both Company Commanders killed) both Sergeant-Majors, and all Sergeants casualties, and two-thirds of the men. Knollys was not certain but he thought No. 4 Company was somewhere up on the left.

Joining one of his friends in the aftermath of the fight, Carstairs continues to describe the intense strangeness of the persistence of human interactions in the midst of deadly battle.

Our consultation was interrupted by the appearance of a tank. It stopped, and out of it an officer descended.

“Do you want me any more?”

“No.” I felt as though I were dismissing a taxi.

He climbed back into the tank and down the street it waddled away.

We occupied a difficult position. The road to our rear joined with the left flank of No. 3 Company. We stood at the junction of the two other roads, one of which led to the station and the other in the direction of Bourlon Wood. The 1st Coldstream were somewhere on our left. A wide gap divided us, a gap impossible to bridge.

Suddenly to our right we saw the enemy attacking down the main road that led to the centre of No. 3 Company’s position. We were well placed to enfilade, which we did with a will. We watched the Germans being beaten back, holding up their arms before their faces as though warding off blows from sticks and stones.

With that attack driven back we thought of No. 3 Company as secure. The men were posted to overlook the roads. We had no thought of our rear. I sent a runner with a message giving our position…

But it soon becomes clear that they are, in fact, in touch with no other British unit–No 3. Company has been driven back by the same attack which his men have just fired on.

Our situation was awkward, to say the least. Sixty men with both flanks in the air cannot hold a village against a strong and inevitable counter-attack.

I caught sight of my face in a mirror. It was pink and normal. I had not taken in the seriousness of our position. I was still in a kind of a dream. A mental smokescreen obscured my vision.

Even the sergeant’s astonishing announcement reached me dimly, “Germans are coming up be’ind!” By no selective reasoning did I find myself, with revolver drawn, behind the wall, while the others stood in the entrance of the yard.

Carstairs’ memories move into the present tense, now:

And to be suddenly shooting at grey uniformed Germans was accompanied by no thrill. How big they were! Was it because he was aiming straight at my head that this German appeared so big? The motion of his rifle coming up to his shoulder increased his stature. My revolver lost power to hurt, for after I had fired the Germans remained in the same position. And yet they were so near it would have seemed impossible to have missed them. (A week before I had hit an envelope at twenty paces.) It did not seem as though I was missing but rather as though my bullets, turning into pellets, were bounding harmlessly off. Nor did the German’s rifle seem to function. There was no smoke, no flash, and I heard no bullet whistle uncomfortably close to my head. The whole thing took on the unreality of a “movie” until one of the Germans dropped. It seemed the signal for which his fellows had been waiting, for with one accord they spun round and ran away. I have never seen people run so fast. I can see
again that man as he turned the corner, the play of his big grey legs from hip to knee. He is gone.

I gazed at Carrington and he at me. It was from our rear that we had been attacked. Where is No. 3 Company?

It was the sergeant who showed presence of mind.

“We must follow.”

Someone shouted. “Collect the rest of the men.”

We broke into a run; following in the wake of the Germans. We passed the wounded German. He had raised himself on his elbow and, stretching out a hand, said something. A plea for mercy, for help? The bullet had hit the bone below the eye, leaving a bloody gash.

We reached the bend in the road. This had been the left of No. 3 Company’s position. Only a dead Grenadier remained. Did we expect to meet the enemy as we stopped stock-still at the corner? I expected nothing. I had ceased to think. It was as though our legs had outstripped thought. Time itself had stopped. The surprise attack, the brief duel, the pursuit, following in swift succession seemed all to belong to the same moment. Only now was time passing. An eternity, while one stood irresolute, wondering what to do.

“We must cut in be’ind these ’ouses, otherwise we’re lost.” It was the sergeant again who spoke.

The thirty survivors of the company escape by climbing through the back gardens of the village of Fontaine. But they do make it back to the rest of the battalion, and Carstairs once again takes time to reflect–once again we are in the past tense.

Experience, at first stimulating, ends by draining the system. Through the high storm of enemy shelling I passed, with any capacity for registering further emotion at last microscopically diminished. I felt no fear because I could feel nothing more. Slithering down the steep and muddy flight of stairs into the dim interior of Battalion  Headquarters’ dugout was a purely mechanical performance, and its shadowy occupants unreal. Its gloom and earthen smell reminded my subconscious self of former rest and security, which acted soporifically upon me and, at the end of my narrative, I fell forward on to the table into a sleep more profound and dreamless than any I had ever known.

I woke into a strange world. The events of the preceding hours rushed kaleidoscopically upon me, leaving me to fit myself, like a piece in a picture puzzle, into my immediate surroundings.

The Battalion was soon to move. Billy was sitting with his head in his hands saying, “Oh, my head! Oh, my head!”
In the midst of the most acute anxiety, disappointment and distress, the Commanding Officer had patience to repeat for the nth time, “Poor Billy!”

The Adjutant and the Padre returned from a final futile hunt for the bodies of “Nibs” and “Mary.” “Missing, believed killed” they will remain until the end of time, with the rest of a generation missing.

A miserable and stricken little family, the survivors of the 3rd Battalion left the “line.”[1]

 

Once again, for the sake of stylistic comparison, we can match the memoir (or personal history) of one Guards’ Regiment officer with the official historian of another.

They led off at 6.20 behind their own barrage, in two waves… Everything was ready for them, and machine-guns opened on well-chosen and converging ranges. Almost at the outset they met a line of enemy posts held in strength, where many of the occupants had chosen to shelter themselves at the bottom of the trenches under oil- sheets, a protection hampering them equally in their efforts to fight or to surrender. Here there was some quick killing and a despatch of prisoners to the rear; but the Wood offered many chances of escape, and as our guards were necessarily few, for every rifle was needed, a number broke away and returned…

[T]he Battalion took half-a-dozen machine-guns and lost more men at each blind step… A man once down in the coppice, or bogged in a wood-pool, was as good as lost, and the in-and-out work through the trees and stumpage broke up the formations…

Nevertheless, the 2nd Irish Guards carry the wood–for a little while. The entire Battalion’s experience sounds much like that of Carstairs:

Not long after this, they tried to dig in among the wet tree-roots, just beyond the Wood’s north edge. It seemed to them that the enemy had fallen back to the railway-line which skirted it, as well as to the north of La Fontaine village. Officially, the objective was reached, but our attacking strength had been used up, and there were no reserves. A barrage of big stuff, supplemented by field-guns, was steadily thrashing out the centre and north of the Wood, and, somewhere to the rear of the Battalion, a nest of machine-guns broke out viciously and unexpectedly. Then the whole fabric of the fight appeared to crumble, as, through one or other of the many gaps between the Battalions, the enemy thrust in, and the 2nd Irish Guards, hanging on to their thin front line, realised him suddenly at their backs. What remained of them split up into little fighting groups; sometimes taking prisoners, sometimes themselves being taken and again breaking away from their captors, dodging, turning, and ducking in dripping coppices and over the slippery soil, while the shells impartially smote both parties…

It looked like complete and unqualified disaster. But men say that the very blindness of the ground hid this fact to a certain extent both from us and the enemy, and the multiplied clamours in the Wood supplied an additional blindage. As one man said: ‘If Jerry had only shut off his dam’ guns and listened he’d ha’ heard we was knocked out; but he kept on hammer-hammering an’ rushin’ his parties back and forth the Wood, and so, ye see, them that could of us, slipped back quiet in the height of the noise.’ Another observer compared it to the chopping of many foxes in cover — not pleasant, but diversified by some hideously comic incidents. All agreed that it was defeat for the Guards — the first complete one they had sustained; but the admitted fact that they had been turned on at a few hours’ notice to achieve the impossible, did not spoil their tempers…

One of the handful of company officers not to become a casualty, today, in Bourlon Wood, was R.E. Sassoon, Siegfried‘s second cousin, who had been held back as a reserve with battalion headquarters.

Cambrai may have given hope and encouragement in England, but those who had been through it remained Sadducees. There were those who said that that hour was the psychological one to have gone on and taken advantage of the moral effect of breaking the Hindenburg Line, but this theory was put forward after the event; and a total of eleven thousand prisoners and a hundred and forty-five German guns for three weeks’ fighting seems small foundation for such large hopes. Every one on the field seems to have been agreed as to the futility of trying to work with, and making arrangements for the keep of, masses of cavalry on the chance that these might break through and overrun the enemy in the background.[2]

 

True enough… but we were going to use Captain Sassoon as a segue to a letter from his second cousin’s friend, admirer, and poetic master-surpassing-pupil. Wilfred Owen, has settled into life as a military hotel manager of sorts, but this is only tolerable because of his confidence that his intellectual life is not just elsewhere but flourishing… there.

27 November 1917 Scarborough

I sit alone at last, and therefore with you, my dear Siegfried. For which name, as much as for anything in any envelope of your sealing, I give thanks and rejoice.

The 5th have taken over a big Hotel, of which I am Major Domo…

I had a Third Heaven of a time in London, arid should have got into a Fourth or Fifth if I had not missed you on Wednesday. Were you there for a ‘Reading?’ I know nothing of it to this day.

He was. Should Sassoon have included Owen? No–it was Ross’s gig, not Sassoon’s, and he was none too pleased to be there himself. Besides, Owen is not as established as Nichols, and arranging such things by letter and telegraph takes a bit more forethought than would be required nowadays… but Owen might also have been wrong for such things because he was not socially correct. He was neither low enough in the social order to be a curiosity nor high enough to be acceptable: he had been to neither Public School nor University, and Sassoon is painfully (read that adverb however you will) aware of Owen’s declassé accent.

After London, I went to Winchester to see my Cousin, whose fine Book cover with its enclosed pages I dare to send you herewith…

In Town, then, R.R. gave me a glorified morning at The Reform, & evening at Half Moon St.—When he had steered me to a lunch-table I found beside me an upstart rodent of a man, who looked astonished to find himself there. But dear Ross sang out with blessed distinctness ‘Mister Amnoldd Bennnettt’. So I stood up and shook hands.  Presently I became aware of a pair of bayonet-coloured eyes, threatening at me from over, as it were, a brown sandbag. ‘H. G. Wells!’ So I stood up and shook hands. I think these men noticed me because I stood up to them in two senses. Anyhow I got A.B. into a comer about you, as I will tell you someday. And H.G. talked to me exclusively for an hour. I was only ill at ease with him once, and that was when he tried to make me laugh with him at Bennett’s gaudy handkerchief.

If you have read through this rehashing of the non-momentous meetings with a roll of the eyes–that Owen is a bit too star struck!–it’s interesting to see what comes next. Even in this somewhat fawning letter to Sassoon, he is willing to, well, fawn, and only just after frankly wondering about Sassoon’s taste in his new friends…

What sport for my imagination is the idea of your Meeting with R. Nichols.—He is so self-concerned & vaniteux in his verse that I thought he must efface himself in a room: even as you who write so acid are so—unsoured; and me, who write so big, am so minuscule…

Oh! world you are making for me, Sassoon!

The only question is, which is the real gift: the criticism and the confidence, the poetic push, or, rather, the exciting entree into literary life?

Owen is quite amusing, actually, in his reading of Sassoon’s and Graves‘s work. There is something very charming about his light-spiritedness, even if he leans on it rather heavily. He presumes a bit too much on his intimacy with the sometimes-frosty Sassoon… but then he laughs at his own excessive glorying:

I think I liked reading his Letter to you more than yours to him, but for no better reasons than that I like the future better than the past, and hope you will learn the piccolo…

If these tetrameters aren’t enough to bring you to your senses. Mad Jack, what can my drivel effect to keep you from France?

Have you been very sat upon by this Board? Do tell me quick what your movements are.

I have studied and expanded every sentencience of your sole letter to me; until I can make no more out of it, and want some more, please…

Owen then–to his credit–at least passes on some of his cousin’s work, with apologetic notes on how to get through them most painlessly. But he also includes his own work, both the unpublished “A Vision of Whitechapel” and another poem, as strange as his mood:

My ‘Vision’ is the result of two hours’ leisure yesterday,—and getting up early this morning! If you have objections to make, would you return it? If not, pass it on to R.R.

I trust you’ll like the ‘Soldier’s Dream’ well enough to pass it on to the Nation or Cambridge?

Um…

I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;
And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts;
And buckled with a smile Mausers and Colts;
And rusted every bayonet with His tears.

And there were no more bombs, of ours or Theirs,
Not even an old flint-lock, not even a pikel.
But God was vexed, and gave all power to Michael;
And when I woke he’d seen to our repairs.

Sassoon will blush here–if not for the effusiveness, the nick-naming, and tje suddenly unreasonable-seeming hopes of publication, than for the plainness of one fact: Owen does not make a very good Sassoon. The punchy satirical style doesn’t work as well without the anger behind it… also, those are some awful rhymes.

No; Owen will realize, soon, that Sassoon’s attention and example have made him–Owen–a much better poet, and no mere fanboy. But he is that, also.

…There is no one here whose mind is Truth, or whose body Keats’s synonym for Truth.

I’ll mind my business. I’m a good worm.

Could you get me another portrait for my room here? I framed the one, and could not pack it.

But don’t make it an excuse for delaying a letter.

I hope you will read through this, twice.

I hope you read Graves’s Letter to S.S. twice a day, till war ends.

We have had some strong sunshine; and when it strikes anything blue I see you sitting by the bedside as on That Morning in September

I am Owen; and I am dying.
I am Wilfred; and I follow the Gleam.[3]

Never fear: this is not some sort of crazed or suicidal swerve at the end of the letter, but a quotation (read “Merlin” for both “Owen” and “Wilfred) from Tennyson’s “Merlin and The Gleam.” What a letter!

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 121-139.
  2. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 157-62.
  3. Collected Letters, 510-12.

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.

Edward Horner and E. A. Mackintosh at Cambrai; Ivor Gurney Assesses Siegfried Sassoon

Yesterday, the Battle of Cambrai began: a marked success of tactical coordination followed by an advance of two or three miles–nearly five in some places. This was one of the quickest and least costly advances of the entire war, and an especially stark contrast to the long, dismal slog of Passchendaele. But the German line was not shattered, the penetration was narrow, and there were numerous reserves in place. Before the battle was twenty-four hours old it stalled, and today, a century back, the strategic tide (if it had ever been high for Britain) began to ebb.

 

The 18th Hussars had ridden into battle yesterday, cavalry following up the initial tank-and-artillery advance. They were now holding the village of Noyelles, south-east of Cambrai, and preparing to go forward when they were met by a local German counter-attack. Lieutenant Edward Horner–heir to Mells manor in Somerset, brother-in-law of Raymond Asquith, dear friend of Diana Manners and Duff Cooper, stalwart of the Coterie–was shot and killed, apparently by a sniper. His death was as quick as the cavalry’s wait to return to action had been long.

In a few years, Horner will become one of the last of England’s warriors to be memorialized by equestrian statue.

 

The 4th Seaforth Highlanders and the rest of the 154th brigade attacked at 6:30, from yesterday’s German front line toward the village of Cantaing. They advanced with pipes skirling, with both cavalry and tanks in sight and aircraft overhead, but by early afternoon they were pinned down in the open, taking machine-gun fire from Bourlon Wood as well as from numerous strafing planes. At some point before 3:30, Ewart Alan Mackintosh, one of Scotland’s most promising young poets, was killed, probably either by sniper or machine gun fire.

It was, we may fervently hope, not much like he had written it in his short, sharp, agonizing poem “Death:”

E. A. Mackintosh

 

Because I have made light of death
And mocked at wounds and pain,
The doom is laid on me to die
Like the humble men in days gone by
That angered me to hear them cry
For pity to me in vain.

I shall not go out suddenly
As many a man has done.
But I shall lie as those men lay
Longing for death the whole long day
Praying, as I heard those men pray,
And none shall heed me, none.

The fierce waves will go surging on
Before they tend to me.
Oh, God of battles I pray you send
No word of pity no help, no friend,
That if my spirit break at the end
None may be there to see.

 

It’s an eerie thing that even an entire slim book on Mackintosh can’t turn up much evidence about who may have been there to see, or not, and to tell what Mackintosh suffered.[1]

 

And we march onward. In England, Ivor Gurney, out of the hospital at last, is in good spirits. And he has been reading his own reviews…

21 November 1917 (P) Pte Gurney 241281, B Co 4th Reserve
Batt:, Gloucester Regt, Seaton Delaval, Northumberland.

My Dear Friend: Alas, for the two months! Today I am on ordinary training, and that means but a short stay if nothing happens…

Two of the local reviews have reached me. They are just what I expected—and didnt want. But I got a delightful letter from Haines — the man who knows Gibson and Abercrombie—which said how pleased he was at his first glance, and how it seemed to be a not unworthy companion for Sassoon’s Book, and Sorley-Turner, whom I have not read.

This, surely, must be Charles Hamilton Sorley–Gurney has mentioned him before, and that he has not been able to read him. Alas that Gurney, with his humble origins and Will Harvey long imprisoned, doesn’t have poetic comrades (in the military sense–Marion Scott could hardly be a better or more attentive friend) to read his work and pass him the latest books. No, instead he makes do with none-too-fresh poetic gossip (more or less accurate, at least), which he now passes on to Marion Scott.

By the way, some time ago Sassoon walked up to his colonel, and said he would fight no more. Flashes, of course: and blue fire. There were questions in the House, and a general dust-up; but at last they solved it in a becoming official fashion, and declared him mad, and put him in a lunatic-asylum; from which there will soon come a second book, and that it will be interesting to see…

It will indeed. From here, though, Gurney’s poetic gossip runs from the pacifist/heroic toward the ironic/practical.

When Rupert Brooke went abroad, he left his copyrights equally between Gibson, Abercrombie, and De La Mare. They have had £2000 each! That’s why Gibson has not died, and his family. Poetry pays — it took a War to make it; but still, there you are.

Best wishes: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[2]

It pays, but–we can’t forbear asking, given what was happening at Cambrai as he wrote–at what cost?

 

References and Footnotes

  1. There are no clear eyewitness accounts, and the bare fact that he was reportedly shot in the head is both entirely possible and faintly suspicious, since instantaneous and painless deaths were often described to next of kin in order to spare them the details of the actual death. See Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man With A Cold, 206-10.
  2. War Letters, 231-2.

Rowland Feilding’s Circuitous Identification; A Reprieve and a Safe Delivery for the Family Tolkien; Wilfred Owen Comes Out with a Key, and Sends “Asleep.”

Just three short notes today from (or about) three of our officers–but one gives a good excuse for us to read a poem.

The shortest comes from Rowland Feilding, who is impressively true to his commitment to tell his wife everything–horrors and fears included. But that doesn’t preclude a bit of light comedy, when such a thing presents itself.

November 16, 1917

One of my officers, in censoring his men’s letters a day or two ago, came upon the following:

“Dear Brother,–

I can’t tell you where I am, but I am at the place which I’ve left to go to the place where I’ve come from.”

I think that should baffle the censor, don’t you?[1]

 

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien had rather a heavier day, today, a century back, but with greater joys at the end of it.

The scheduled family medical event was another Board, which determined that his recovery from his latest bout with fever has been too slow. Tolkien was declared “20 per cent disabled,” a ruling which would have come to him as the lifting of a great weight: this classification made it very unlikely that he would ever face enemy fire again. Tolkien was sent back to the Lancashire Fusiliers depot at Thirtle Bridge, for at least two months more of “home service” before his next assessment.

And on returning to base he learned that his wife Edith had gone into labor in a Cheltenham nursing home. It will be a difficult delivery, and there are fears for her life, but Tolkien was unable to get leave to see her. It must have been a terrible day, for any husband and prospective father, but especially for one so fiercely committed to the romantic ideal of marriage.

And it ended happily: John Francis Reuel Tolkien will be born, healthy and strong, and his mother will make a relatively swift recovery.[2]

 

And finally, today, an unusually revealing–and predictably obscured–letter from Wilfred Owen. He has just spent several days visiting with his cousin Leslie Gunston, his closest friend and poetic fellow-dreamer in earlier years. But Owen had moved beyond his old friend and kinsman, and there was a new distance between the two. It’s not just that Gunston writes hackneyed verse while Owen has begun writing powerful poetry, and it’s not just his fancy new London friends. It also seems to have something to do with new honesty: emboldened by his friendship with Sassoon and Robbie Ross, Owen  seems to have made his sexual preferences clear to his cousin for the first time.

My dear Leslie,

I did not think to send back a driblet of your Ink so soon, but I have indeed carried off the key.

Had it been the key of my box I should surely have left it with you. As it was I left you the key to many of my poems, which you will guard from rust or soilure. . .

At this point the censorious editors of his letters cut in, omitting twenty-two words. It seems very likely that these announced Owen’s homosexuality as the “key” to his early poems, the love lyrics which he and Gunston would often write as parallel exercises. To “come out” even in so roundabout a fashion was courageous, and Owen must have trusted his friend and cousin, for the letter continues on as if their continued easy fellowship will not be affected by the news.

Good of you to send me the Lyric of Nov. 14th. I can only send my own of the same date, which came from Winchester Downs, as I crossed the long backs of the downs after leaving you. It is written as from the trenches. I could almost see the dead lying about in the hollows of the downs…

your W.E.O.[3]

Owen also gamely and loyally informs Gunston that he asked Harold Munro about Gunston’s rather awful The Nymph–although of course he could be fibbing. Even so, he does not mention doing anything specific to get The Nymph into the Poetry Bookshop, where after all it wouldn’t belong.

But if Gunston doesn’t realize how far Owen’s poetry has moved beyond their joint adolescent imitations, then perhaps he will be happy to receive drafts from his successful cousin, rather than chagrined that they are of such a different quality than his own productions…

In any event, the poem is called “Asleep,” and although it is nothing of Owen’s strongest and has quite a bit of the young man’s lyricism that drenched his pre-Sassoon work (although perhaps the erotic element will now be clear, for the first time, to the “key”-possessing Gunston), it is still the work of a veteran and a fast-developing poet:

 

Under his helmet, up against his pack,
After so many days of work and waking,
Sleep took him by the brow and laid him back.

There, in the happy no-time of his sleeping,
Death took him by the heart. There heaved a quaking
Of the aborted life within him leaping,
Then chest and sleepy arms once more fell slack.

And soon the slow, stray blood came creeping
From the intruding lead, like ants on track.

Whether his deeper sleep lie shaded by the shaking
Of great wings, and the thoughts that hung the stars,
High-pillowed on calm pillows of God’s making,
Above these clouds, these rains, these sleets of lead,
And these winds’ scimitars,
Or whether yet his thin and sodden head
Confuses more and more with the low mould,
His hair being one with the grey grass
Of finished fields, and wire-scrags rusty-old,
Who knows? Who hopes? Who troubles? Let it pass!
He sleeps. He sleeps less tremulous, less cold,
Than we who wake, and waking say Alas!

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 225.
  2. Chronology, 102; I'm not completely sure if young Tolkien was actually born today or tomorrow, a century back.
  3. Collected Letters, 507-8. The censor is Owen's brother Harold, who ruthlessly but incompetently suppressed information about his brother's sexuality

Vera Brittain on Night Duty and Edward in Italy; Back to the Front for Carroll Carstairs; Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Nichols Sing for their Society Supper, but Wilfred Owen Misses the Party

It’s an unsettled sort of day, today, a century back, with new experiences that are none too welcome. We have, first off, a letter from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera, his first from Italy.

I am rather disappointed with this part of the country — we are close to where Vergil was supposed to be born and the city forms the adjective so often applied to him (even in Tennyson’s ode to Vergil) – it is flat and not specially interesting apart from its novelty.

Mantua, that is: and a much more mainstream deployment of a decent classical education than some of the heroically obscure place-references of Patrick Shaw Stewart and the other argonauts. But what clever chap can resist such a minor violation of the rules about revealing military locations?

We marched through the city yesterday — it is old, picturesque and rather sleepy with narrow streets and pungent smells; we have been accorded a most hearty reception all the way and have been presented with anything
from bottles of so-called phiz, to manifestos issued by mayors of towns; flowers and postcards were the most frequent tributes. Some of the country we passed through was very fine; apres la guerre finie there are several places where you and I might like to stay a while…

But Vera has other things to worry about, today–or rather tonight.

That same evening I was sent on night-duty to an acute medical ward. Since each of my previous night-duties had become a sharp, painful memory of telegrams and death and brooding grief, I did not welcome the change, and wrote to my mother in a sudden fit of despondency, deepened by the renewed recollection that Edward, my fellow-survivor, was far away and depressed:

“I feel very old and sad these days, though Sister ‘Milroy’ . . . tells me she feels like my mother when she goes out with me, though she’s only eight years older. I wonder if I shall ever be eight years older, and if the next eight could possibly be as long as the last three. I suppose I am saturated with War, and getting thoroughly war-weary, like everyone else.”[1]

 

Carroll Carstairs, our American officer of the Grenadiers, was in the area as well, returning to the line after leave.

Trains! French trains… I watched the smoke from the engine drift into separate wisps that looked like shrapnel bursts. Leaning back in my seat, I felt myself being carried along by destiny itself.

The drums reminded me that I was back again, feeling, in the process of a slight readjustment, unreality in the midst of the greatest reality. While I was away the Battalion had moved by route march from Ypres to the Somme.[2]

Which is but a way of indicating that we will, shortly, as well.

 

But first, once again, to London. Today’s most interesting event, from a war literature point of view, was a crossing-of-paths between the two most significant soldier-poets of 1917, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Nichols. Robert Graves is the key node between the two of them, having been enthusiastically talking them up to each other for months and very hopeful that the three shall form a musketeerish bond, but he is on duty in Wales, and actually in command of the garrison of the Royal Welch at Rhyl. Which was perhaps a good thing, as the three together might have made for an explosive stew of intense eagerness and disparate social anxieties.

Instead, the two poets met with the capable Robbie Ross to smooth the way. Tonight, then, was yet another soldier-poet dinner at the Reform Club, and it might very well have gone badly. Nichols’s Ardours and Endurances has been “the hit of the season,” but Sassoon’s assessment was not favorable. He is surely correct that Nichols was “not as good as Sorley,” and posterity has certainly agreed–but that would be getting ahead of ourselves. But it should be fairly obvious that the poems will not wear that well: they are pretty, but they ring hollow in too many places. Nichols was (too) confident in his talent, but then again he knew himself to be a lightweight in terms of military service compared to Sassoon, that well-known fire-eater and wearer of the MC, and that easily could have been a point of unpleasantness.

Had Nichols suspected that Sassoon knew himself to be the better poet–or if he knew how much Sassoon shared Graves’s scorn for his personal failings (i.e. Nichols’s adventures with shell shock and venereal disease)–it might have degenerated into a butting of heads or a competition in offense-taking. And Nichols had either missed–or chosen to overlook–the rather pointed use of the word  “ardours” in “Fight to the Finish,” which suggests that Sassoon recognized him for a bit of a phony and was willing to take a shot at him in print.

So, again, it was lucky that they had Robbie Ross, “expert conversational masseur.” The dinner went well and the friendship began, but the three did not retire thereafter to Ross’s flat in Half Moon Street, the decadent chambers to which Wilfred Owen had recently been initiated. No: they had been set up! Ross, after dining with them, duly delivered the two poets to a literary gathering at the home of Sibyl Colefax, “a rising society hostess, a ‘duchess-snob’, who liked to collected literary lions.”

Once they arrived, the poets, bait for the real prey–society eminences–learned that they were expected to perform. Nichols had done such a public reading before, and was a happy ham. He went first, melodramatically declaimed his verses, and then, even worse, was followed by a piano interlude of ragtime tunes played by Ivor Novello. Sassoon was thus perfectly primed to displease, and he certainly tried to, reading “The Hero, “The Rear-Guard,” and the famously controversial “They,” with its soldier “gone syphilitic” and blunt mockery of conventional religion.

It’s hard to tell if this was Sassoon just being “tough,” or, rather, whether he was trying to needle Nichols (who had seen nothing as horrible as the Hindenburg Tunnel, but did indeed know the horrors of syphilis). If Sassoon was “genuinely impressed” by Nichols, as one biographer has it, he was also irritated by his performance, which caused Sassoon “acute discomfort.”

But in any case Sassoon was a poor reader and he was out of every one of his various elements–this was not the sort of crowd that would either be impressed by a minor gentleman-sportsman from Kent with an MC, charmed by the handsome young jock-aesthete, or approving of quiet aloofness as a substitute for active wit.

Was he trying to shock the bourgeois? Perhaps, but one should credit him with a more nuanced appreciation of class: this wasn’t that crowd either. These were experienced high society women, flying far above the mere bourgeois, and three and a half years into the war. Lady Cynthia Asquith only recorded Sassoon’s shyness and prominent ears, while Vita Sackville-West, not surprisingly, saw through the ambitious Nichols, calling him “a horrid little bounder.”[3]

But what does that signify? At least the poets performed, and the ladies had something to say. Sassoon still had some dwindling notoriety as a protest poet, and some might notice that his poems “shocked” to good effect. Nichols was popular, and he delivered the goods, no matter that they are second-rate. The two will soon be invited back again, to enliven our last blogging December with their tales of the war’s largest literary waymeet…

 

Unfortunately for Wilfred Owen, however, his luck has run out–or it hasn’t yet run away enough for such things. He was in London too, today, a century back, on the way back home after visiting his cousin Leslie Gunston, and went to the Poetry Bookshop, where he was pleased to exchange winks with Harold Monro when a customer spoke of Sassoon. But then he was off to Shrewsbury, unaware that Sassoon and Nichols were with Ross…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 392; Letters From a Lost Generation, 382.
  2. Generation Missing, 118.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 423; Ricketts, Strange Meetings, 128-131.
  4. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 283.