Henry Williamson on the Shelf; Duff Cooper Closes the Office Door; Edmund Blunden of the Flashing Wit

Today a century back, two very different men have their recent hopes confirmed. Henry Williamson, ill once again–his condition perhaps aggravated by inhaling small amounts of phosgene gas–went before a Medical Board and was ruled “unfit for General Service for three months, unfit for Home Service for two months, and unfit for Light Duties for one month.” Long, long ago, he had joined the Territorials in order to escape some office drudgery and make friends, and this brought him into the bloody open warfare of the war’s early months. By now he has few consistent illusions or ambitions about the army, and he is surely overjoyed to have escaped the front for another summer.[1]

 

Duff Cooper–older and moving in much higher social circles–has stayed at his government job while so many of his friends volunteered, and fought, and were killed. Now, his way opened by the broadening pressure of conscription (and by his belated self-assertion as a volunteer), he has escaped the office at last, and may soon face the trenches for the first time.

June 22, 1917

Today I left the Foreign Office without a single regret…  I love to think of the dreary files of papers that I shall not see again. Even if I survive the war I doubt whether I shall go back to the Foreign Office. I should hate to face that monotonous routine again.[2]

 

But we’ll catch up today with Edmund Blunden. I may weary my readers with praise of his subtle, restrained, gorgeous prose… but that’s the memoir. It’s good to see him writing in a different vein to his younger school friend from Christ’s Hospital, Hector Buck–it’s a reminder that Blunden’s intelligence and coming excellence as a writer is not a guarantee of precocious wisdom.

A letter of June 9th begins in fine fettle, and in medias res (we’ll skip the Greek epithet at the beginning; but I will remind readers that Blunden was Senior Grecian before he was subaltern of infantry, and therefore it was hardly a stretch to come up with a sobriquet for a friend called “Hector”…)

Behold, yet a time again for my Indomitable Energy to foot the boards and imitate the well-rounded humours of those famous men Hy. Champion & Jas. Godden…

To my disgust and bile, it is nearly a fortnight since I had any news from anyone — for down at the Rest Camp I missed my mail, and after leaving there was sent on to this Rayless Void (Musketry School). So nothing has come from my probably exasperated Friends & Acquaintances. See to it my Son that this is altered at an Early Date…

I have been here since the evening of the 3rd; and I wrote to my battalion, with an exceeding bitter Cry, to be ransomed from this exile the day after; so I should be hearing very soon now what is happening to them and get back to them I hope.

This, in other words, will be something like a Music Hall turn. The high spirits may be due as much to the fact of having missed the danger of the Battle of Messines as to knowledge of the British success–but then again Blunden is always happier with his battalion than without.

Nevertheless, this is very much a school letter, and although Blunden jokes about how their old French master would approve of his scandalous new practical French, his questions about school and county cricket are in earnest. He betrays more anxiety about the pitch than the battlefield:

This capture of Messines is commonly called champion. I remember when I came out, there was a legend that the Guards had offered to take it if every man surviving could have a fortnight’s leave. But there was nothing doing. At that time too there was another fairy fable that any man capturing a German Very Light would in like manner receive a fortnight furlough. ‘O dream too Sweet, too Sweet, too Bitter’ (whose? why Christina Rossetti’s or some spinster). Walk march. Hop along Sister Mary, hop along.

Forbear, for I am more fool than knave, to be angry with my letter–is it not a little one? Mine’s a Malaga Mademoiselle. Alliteration alcoholic. No compris Zig-Zag. You plenty bon. How’s everyone?

Right. Since I’m not following that either, we’ll skip the part where Blunden stops doing imitation Carroll and just quotes the Jabberwock, and move on to today’s letter.

22nd June [1917]
Feast of Ancient Trulls
B.E.F.
Gaul Blimey

Sir Knight as it seems,

Gratitude be heaped on your head for your last letter to me, which came like Hy Champion on the vaudeville firmament, full of beans and grace. My feeble frame was strengthened as with Tono-Bungay. I was as
one that tasteth of the ripe October after marching from foreign parts through a Burning Heat & do not be dismayed if my answer is more like a glee party of wombats and armadillos in full cry than anything else yet devised by the wit of man…

But style is not substance. Although Blunden keeps up the jokey-referential schoolboy patter, he also goes to the heart of the matter. It sounds jolly, but this is still a letter confessing poisonous despair about the war, and suggesting the use of large doses of pastoral (or, rather, Georgic) recourses as an antidote:

I need not ‘stress’ (the Northcliffe influence) the depth of despondency to which I am permanently lowered. The ancient humour comforts me no more. I have lately taken all chances of studying Flanders farmers urging on their horses with cries reminiscent of sea-sickness perpetually threatening–I have stood for hours watching the Carnivora or whatever they are that live in farmyards, hoping to mimic the White Leghorns praising Jah [i.e. Jehovah], the Goat requesting food, the barn dog-proclaiming the moon, and the Oldest Inhabitant filling up the swine’s swill trough.

The clamour and tinsel heroics of Bayonet Fighting Instructors, the malapropisms and arm gestures of our R.S.M. [Regimental Sergeant-Major], the rages and quiffs of Generals and Staffs–I have noted them all and gone away in despair. The War is a sort of slow poison to me that keeps on drugging and deadening my mind. And I can tell you that the shelling just lately is far worse than anything we have been through before except for actual attacks. The Bosch is so windy that he puts on a barrage every few hours in case we are just assembling to attack him. But as far as the battalion is concerned, we are back now for a few days’ training.
Anyway I loathe the war & the army too. To hell with same.

Not only has Blunden rounded up the usual suspects–the bayonet instructor, the staff–but he has joined the ranks of the wrathful. Sensitive port-officers have been annoyed by the outcry against the loss of civilian life for more than two years now, but it has not been Blunden’s part yet to make the sharp angry complaint.

Nor does resentful ire bring out the best in him–there is another kind of puerility here too.

Why shouldn’t coves like Merk who go on in their petty self-inflations have some of the discomforts? There was more shriek in England over several hundred casualties in a bombing raid than there has been over several hundred thousand out here reported at a steady rate in Minion type on the back page among the advertisements of sheenies and toothwash wallahs. But forgive me…

I will consider it.

Why I am so cynical and tired of life lately I don’t know; but I expect Nature; is working normally and in due time I shall be removed to Bedlam.

The last few days have been stormy and I expect your hands are not being so buffeted by erratic fast bowling, but rather pushing awry the frequent wicket and startling the dozing Umpire into giving the incredulous Batsman Out…

So off the poise I am that I read the ‘Princess’ by Tennyson the Other day. Tennyson trying to be humorous, or realistic, is like a hippopotamus in violet tights attempting to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope, so I laughed Long & Loud. But afterwards I read some of In Memoriam and repented myself.

But Literature languishes as a whole in the battalion except for two books ‘Flossie’ and ‘Aphrodite’ which the Archbishop of Canterbury has probably not read. I have got my ‘John Clare’s Poems’ and often tub thump over them, claiming him as one of the best. But no one wants to agree with me.

Please get the War stopped pretty soon. Some of us are as mummies, only we still carry on the motions of breathing, swathed round with red-tape and monotony. I wish you all jolly good luck…

My best wishes to you old son.

Keep on going.

Your friend,
E. Blunden[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 165.
  2. Diaries, 54.
  3. More Than a Brother, 4-9.

Wilfred Owen in Hampshire; Herbert Read Reads a Novel, and Writes a Journal, and Looks Forward to Death or Glory

First, a brief update from Wilfred Owen, now a patient at the famously nasty military hospital at Netley, near Southampton Owen refers to its enormous main building as “The Bungalow,” but he is relatively lucky in being assigned to the Welsh Hospital, which is essentially a complex of huts out back. Blighty is nice, but he continues to hope, above all things, for home leave.

Sunday Mng. Welsh Hospital, Netley, Hampshire

I shall have to stay here a week or so. Visitors are allowed in the afternoons, but you will of course wait till I get my 3 Weeks at home. We are on Southampton Water, pleasantly placed, but not so lovely a coast as Etretat. The Town is not far off, & we are allowed to go in. Hope you had my Telegram. Nothing to write about now. I am in too receptive a mood to speak at all about the other side the seamy side of the Manche. I just wander about absorbing Hampshire.[1]

 

Our only other communication today is a rather more complex missive from the front, from Herbert Read to Evelyn Roff. In just a few pages, written from a reserve billet between spells of trench duty, Read manages to touch on writing and reading, the meanings of art and the possibility of death in war…

17.vi.17

One item of news I must not forget to tell you. Aylwin came. I read it (in the trenches, of all incongruous places) and it conquered me…

Read goes on to compare the now-obscure 1899 novel to The House of Seven Gables and Wuthering Heights. Once his literary analysis is completed, a new paragraph launches into a discussion of his own recent writing. This is an overdue reminder of a development I haven’t had precise enough dates to be able to cover: Read had been very busy during his long absence from the trenches, and is now editing (and writing much of) his own Modernist periodical, Arts and Letters. He preens a bit for Roff, and soon moves from barely concealed pride to open fishing for compliments:

Shall I ever make a reviewer (vide Portrait of the Artist)?

…I was a little doubtful about the second poem…

It’s hard not to imagine an eye-roll. But Read is both a capable poet and a perceptive reviewer–for which you must take my word, for the time being.

From there, Read’s discussion of Modernism gains confidence until it ends in an abrupt segue that could stand for the strange fascination of the trench-letter-genre in general:

…It is one of my aims–to restore poetry to its true rôle of a spoken art. The music of words–the linking of sounds… unity of action. Each poem should be exact… The fact of emotion unites the art to life. Any ‘idea’, i.e. ethical or critical, or philosophy should only be basic–ground from which the beauty springs. Or perhaps the unifying principle of a man’s art viewed as a whole.

I’ve been chosen for a death or glory job soon to come off. I am very glad–glad in the first place because it gives me the first chance I’ve had of doing something–glad in the second place because it means that others recognize that I’m of the clan that don’t care a damn for anything.

All the same I intend to ‘come through’ as full of life as anything.[2]

So the next volume of Arts and Letters–and the sound of poetry and the emotional unity of art–will have to wait until this next raid or patrol comes off. If it comes off.

What’s strange here, to me at least, is that the serious, learned talk of the meaning of art has the effect of undermining the youthfully bluff claim that he is eager to risk his life in a coming action. Read[3] side by side as he wrote them, the three paragraphs seem like a too-strenuous declaration of multiple self-definitions… as he protests we realize the improbability or their being conjoined in the same person: Herbert Read cares a great deal for art, and he also cares for nothing, and he also wants very much to survive the quotidian brutality of some trench “stunt.”

And yet he really does mean more or less what he says. It’s all that Nietzsche: paradox is possible, death is acceptable, and glory, really, is the goal…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 470.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 98-9.
  3. The past verb, not the writer/officer!

Vera Brittain and Siegfried Sassoon Under Bombardment, in London; Olaf Stapledon on Mr. Britling; Rowland Feilding on the Things they Carry; The Master of Belhaven Has a Near Miss

Today, a century back, Siegfried Sassoon–keeping his options well open–went to Cambridge for the day to interview for a job in a cadet battalion.[1] He may have left without a degree, but Cambridge is different now, and he has come back with an MC. He seems a prime candidate for what would be a respectable and conventionally honorable “safe job”–but the trip from London to Cambridge, ironically, was less than safe. Sassoon describes the day in the wry retrospective voice of George Sherston. Or, rather, the wry retrospective way in which he puffs apart Sherston and his experience by blowing a thin layer of warm ironic air in between the first-person description of experience and the world around that half-oblivious subject:

Supervising a platoon of Cadet Officers at Cambridge would have been a snug alternative to ‘general service abroad’ (provided that I could have bluffed the cadets into believing that I knew something about soldiering). I was going there to be interviewed by the Colonel and clinch my illusory appointment; but I was only doing this because I considered it needful for what I called ‘strengthening my position’ I hadn’t looked ahead much, but when I did so it was with an eye to safeguarding myself against ‘what people would say’…

Anyhow, on a glaring hot morning I started to catch a train to Cambridge. I was intending to stay a night there, for it would be nice to have a quiet look round and perhaps go up to Grantchester in a canoe. Admittedly, next month was bound to be ghastly; but it was no good worrying about that. . . . Had I enough money on me! Probably not; so I decided to stop and change a cheque at my bank in Old Broad Street. Changing a cheque was always a comforting performance. ‘Queer thing, having private means,’ I thought. ‘They just hand you out the money as if it was a present from the Bank Manager.’ It was funny, too, to think that I was still drawing my Army pay.

But it was the wrong moment for such humdrum cogitations, for when my taxi stopped in that narrow thoroughfare, Old Broad Street, the people on the pavement were standing still, staring up at the hot white sky. Loud bangings had begun in the near neighbourhood, and it was obvious that an air-raid was in full swing. This event could not be ignored; but I needed money and wished to catch my train, so I decided to disregard it. The crashings continued, and while I was handing my cheque to the cashier a crowd of women clerks came wildly down a winding stairway with vociferations of not unnatural alarm. Despite this commotion the cashier handed me five one-pound notes with the stoical politeness of a man who had made up his mind to go down with the ship. Probably he felt as I did—more indignant than afraid; there seemed no sense in the idea of being blown to bits in one’s own bank. I emerged from the building with an air of soldierly unconcern; my taxi-driver, like the cashier, was commendably calm, although another stupendous crash sounded as though very near Old Broad street (as indeed it was). I suppose we may as well go on to the station/ I remarked, adding, ‘it seems a bit steep that one can’t even cash a cheque in comfort!’ The man grinned and drove on. It was impossible to deny that the War was being brought home to me.

But is it? No, I think it is, but with that special, rueful emphasis on the last two words–“to me.” The air raid here appears first in the context of absurdity and a classic evocation of British character: “Sherston” carefully contrasts it with his very English position as a man with “private means” who might ride to hounds or ride off to war but doesn’t expect to earn a living or face violence during the ordinary course of his privileged day. This is about, in our terms, an irruption across the experiential gulf. But it’s treated as a dastardly blow, some piece of bad form, a punch after the bell, and not as the beginning of the end of any notion of war as a reliably distant event, the early days of “total war.”

At Liverpool Street there had occurred what, under normal conditions, would be described as an appalling catastrophe. Bombs had been dropped on the station and one of them had hit the front carriage of the noon express to Cambridge. Horrified travellers were hurrying away. The hands of the clock indicated 11.50; but railway-time had been interrupted; for once in its career, the imperative clock was a passive spectator. While I stood wondering what to do, a luggage trolley was trundled past me; on it lay an elderly man, shabbily dressed, and apparently dead. The sight of blood caused me to feel quite queer. This sort of danger seemed to demand a quality of courage dissimilar to front line fortitude. In a trench one was acclimatized to the notion of being exterminated and there was a sense of organized retaliation. But here one was helpless; an invisible enemy sent destruction spinning down from a fine weather sky; poor old men bought a railway ticket and were trundled away again dead on a barrow; wounded women lay about in the station groaning. And one’s train didn’t start. . . . Nobody could say for certain when it would start, a phlegmatic porter informed me; so I migrated to St. Pancras and made the journey to Cambridge in a train which halted good-naturedly at every station. Gazing at sleepy green landscapes, I found difficulty in connecting them (by the railway line) with the air-raid…

 

Vera Brittain had less trouble finding emotional context for the same bombing raid, coming as it did in the desolation following Victor Richardson’s miserable and lonely death. But her experience–and her initial reaction, as an overseas veteran of sorts who would rather be heading toward the war than held helpless underneath it–is quite similar to Sassoon’s:

Although three out of the four persons were gone who had made all the world that I knew, the War seemed no nearer a conclusion than it had been in 1914. It was everywhere now; even before Victor was buried, the daylight air-raid of June 13th “brought it home,” as the newspapers remarked, with such force that I perceived danger to be infinitely preferable when I went after it, instead of waiting for it to come after me.

She hasn’t been in combat, but she has been to the wars; but then again she hasn’t been under fire… In any event, membership in the categories of alienated veteran or older civilian are not a sure guide to one’s reaction to a sudden irruption of violence into a London spring day.

I was just reaching home after a morning’s shopping in Kensington High Street when the uproar began, and, looking immediately at the sky, I saw the sinister group of giant mosquitoes sweeping in close formation over London. My mother, whose temperamental fatalism had always enabled her to sleep peacefully through the usual night-time raids, was anxious to watch the show from the roof of the flats, but when I reached the doorway my father had just succeeded in hurrying her down to the basement; he did not share her belief that destiny remained unaffected by caution, and himself derived moral support in air-raids from putting on his collar and patrolling the passages. The three of us listened glumly to the shrapnel raining down like a thunder-shower upon the trees in the park — those quiet trees which on the night of my return from Malta had made death and horror seem so unbelievably remote. As soon as the banging and crashing had given way to the breathless, apprehensive silence which always followed a big raid, I made a complicated journey to the City to see if my uncle had been added to the family’s growing collection of casualties.

In a grimly amusing coincidence, this uncle is a banker, and so Vera too finds herself making small talk in a bank in the aftermath of the raid.

The streets round the Bank were terrifyingly quiet, and in some places so thickly covered with broken glass that I seemed to be wading ankle-deep in huge unmelted hailstones. I saw no dead nor wounded, though numerous police-supervised barricades concealed a variety of gruesome probabilities. Others were only too clearly suggested by a crimson-splashed horse lying indifferently on its side, and by several derelict tradesman’s carts bloodily denuded of their drivers. These things, I concluded, seemed less inappropriate when they happened in France, though no doubt the French thought otherwise.[2]

And that gives us rather a strong clue as to where Vera Brittain will turn her thoughts, now that her sacrifice of her nursing career for the love of Victor Richardson has come to nothing. Somewhere where mangled bodies and enormous suffering might seem more… appropriate.

 

But to return to Sassoon is to escape the bombs and their bad memories and head for Cambridge, where George Sherston can think of “war” in 1914 terms, when it was healthy outdoor tin-soldiering for overgrown boy scouts, and before it came to connote the indiscriminate bombing of cities.

But here was Cambridge, looking contented enough in the afternoon sunshine, as though the Long Vacation were on. The Colleges appeared to have forgotten their copious contributions to the Roll of Honour. The streets were empty, for the Cadets were out on their afternoon parades — probably learning how to take compass-bearings, or pretending to shoot at an enemy who was supposedly advancing from a wood nine hundred yards away. I knew all about that type of training. ‘Half-right; haystack; three fingers left of haystack; copse; nine hundred; AT THE COPSE, ten rounds rapid, FIRE!’

There wasn’t going to be any musketry-exercise instructing for me, however. I was only ‘going through the motions’ of applying for a job with the Cadet Battalion. The orderly room was on the ground floor of a college. In happier times it had been a library (the books were still there) and the Colonel had been a History Don with a keen interest in the Territorials. Playing the part of respectful young applicant for instructorsliip in the Arts of War, I found myself doing it so convincingly that the existence of my ‘statement’ became, for the moment, an improbability…

Sherston, concealing his combustibly mixed feelings by dint of instinct or good breeding, gets the job: the colonel “shook my hand rather as if I’d won a History Scholarship” and sends him on his way. But Sherston lingers in the groves of Academe.

Sitting in King’s Chapel I tried to recover my conviction of the nobility of my enterprise and to believe that the pen which wrote my statement had ‘dropped from an angel’s wing’. I also reminded myself that Cambridge had dismissed Tyrrell from his lectureship because he disbelieved in the War. ‘Intolerant old blighters!’ I inwardly ex- claimed. ‘One can’t possibly side with people like that. All they care about is keeping up with the other colleges in the casualty lists.’ Thus refortified, I went down to the river and hired a canoe.

 

And after those two very closely aligned bits of memoir, we have three short but disparate chunks, interludes of labor, love, and near death from around the front.

 

Rowland Feilding will not shy from criticism of his superiors any more than he would speak out openly against their conduct. But like any perceptive correspondent from the front, he will mark out, from time to time, how the lot of the infantryman grows ever grimmer.

June 14, 1917  Oultersteene.

Yesterday, we marched back here—to safety—in grilling heat. What with their box respirators with extensions, steel helmets, P.H. gas helmets, rifles, ammunition, packs, etc., there is little doubt but that the infantry soldier is getting
over-loaded for marching. His equipment grows as the inventions for killing grow.

Already, he must carry between 70 lbs. and 80 lbs. And after a long bout of inactivity in the trenches (I refer only to the lack of exercise), you can well understand that he is not in condition for weight-carrying. Moreover, he does not improve matters by lapping water out of his water-bottle at every halt, as is his habit if not carefully watched. However, the authorities are beginning to appreciate these difficulties, and to provide motor-lorries for carrying the
packs, when such are available.[3]

Is this progress, or is this only maintaining misery by adjusting impossible burdens back down to the barely tolerable?

 

As for Olaf Stapledon, although treacherous mails have lately lengthened the lag between Agnes Miller and himself (some of their letters were lost at sea to German submarines), he is still faithfully following Agnes Miller’s suggestions. Which makes him rather late to the literary bandwagon of late 1916:

…I have begun to read “Mr. Britling,” on your recommendation. It promises well…

We are very indignant because the other two FAU convoys, which were in successful bits of offensive, have had croix-de-guerre rewards… [even though] under the circumstances our work was much more arduous than theirs. It’s bad luck…  However… we ought not to bother about such things. Moderate pacifists tend to bother about such things just as tokens that they are not mere shirkers.[4]

 

The Master of Belhaven has been hard at work behind Messines all week, and today, a century back, he attended a conference at which new forward firing positions were assigned. On the way back, he had a close call very similar to one experienced by Edward Thomas.

I… got back without incident, beyond being nearly killed by an 18-pounder that was firing across the road I was on. I did not see it till I was almost in front of the muzzle and about ten yards in front; at that moment it fired. I was knocked backwards by the blast of the gun and nearly had the drums of my ears broken. People ought to lookout before firing and see that the place is clear…[5]

We’ve seen friendly fire kill the infantry, but artillery officers who are not careful run the risk of a more shocking sort of accidental demise when passing by camouflaged batteries.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 377.
  2. Testament of Youth, 365-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 195.
  4. Talking Across the World, 230-1.
  5. War Diary, 316.

Edward Brittain on Victor Richardson, and What Remains; Ivor Gurney on Food and Fatalism; Patrick Shaw Stewart Lolls and Reads

First, today, a letter from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera, his first to her since the death of Victor Richardson. There is something still clinging to this letter of the Romantic idealism that has always marked this group of friends–but not much. Edward is not in a mood to be sentimental about cruel wounds, or to fool himself about pain.

Roker, Sunderland, 11 June 1917

Dearest Vera —

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all, but yet, now that all are gone it seems that whatever was of value in life has all tumbled down like a house of cards. Yet in Tah’s case I will not, I cannot say that I wished from the bottom of my heart that he should live; I have a horror of blindness, and if I were blinded myself I think I should wish to die. The idea of long years without the light of the sun and the glory of its setting and without the immortal lamp of life is so abhorrent to me — and the thought of that has been hanging over me these 2 months — that I cannot altogether deplore the opening of the gates of eternal rest to that Unconquerable Soul, although I loved him in a way that few men can love one another. I am so very glad that you were near and saw him so nearly at the end; in a way too I am glad not to have been there; it is good to remember the cheerfulness with which he faced the living of a new life fettered by the greatest misfortune known to men.

Yes, I do say Thank God he didn’t have to live it. We started alone, dear child, and here we are alone again: you find me changed, I expect, more than I find you; that is perhaps the way of Life. But we share a memory which is worth all the rest of the world, and the sun of that memory never sets. And you know that I love you, that I would do anything in the world in my power if you should ask it, and that I am your servant as well as your brother

Edward[1]

 

So life goes on, even if there is nothing but love to get down behind in the mud and push.

Ivor Gurney, today, is thinking of life–and food… and poetry… and food again… and ends.

11 June 1917

My Dear Friend: Out of the line once more, but for once, not hungry, for the Lord and the ASC have been kind to us, and liberal gentlemen have bestowed cake upon me…

Yes, the College Mag. and the TLS have arrived. I am sorry I forgot to thank you. If there are any complementary copies please send them to Mrs Chapman and Mrs Hunt…

Today there are orgies of cleaning, and men brush and polish frantically at brass and leather. The weather is beautiful, and there is plenty of water to wash with, so we are not unhappy. Also there is plenty to eat…

Gurney is writing to Marion Scott, of course, and he includes several rondels in a similarly light-hearted vein. But see the last lines–light-heartedness is a passing mood, in the trenches, and never the note of resolution.

Rondels

1. Letters

“Mail’s up”! the vast of night is over
And love of friends fills all one’s mind
(His wife, his sister, or his lover.)
Mail’s up, the vast of night is over.
The grey-faced heaven Joy does cover
With love, and God once more seems kind.
“Mail’s up”! The vast of night is over
And love of friends fills all one’s mind.

2. Shortage

God God! No Jam! No Bread!!
No Butter!!!
Whatever are we coming to?
O desolation, anguish utter —
Good God! No jam, no bread, no butter.
I hear the brutal soldiers mutter.
And strong men weep as children do.
Good God! No jam, no bread,
No butter!
Whatever are we coming to?

3. Paean

There’s half a loaf per man today?
O Sergeant, is it really true?
Now biscuits can be given away.
There’s half a loaf per man today;
And Peace is ever so near they say.
With tons of grub and nothing to do.
There’s Half a Loaf Per Man today!
O Sergeant is it Really True?

4. Strafe (1)

I strafe my shirt most regularly.
And frighten all the population.
Wonderful is my strategy!
I strafe my shirt most regularly;
(It sounds like distant musketry.)
And still I itch like red damnation!
I strafe my shirt most regularly
And — frighten all the population………….

5. Strafe (2)

The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute.
We crouch and wait the end of it, — or us
Just behind the trench, before, and in it.
The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute;
(O Framilode! O Maisemore’s laughing linnet!)
Here comes a monster like a motor bus.
The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute;
We crouch and wait the end of it — or us

I wonder if the proofs are with Sidgwick and Jackson yet. That will interest me, and also (when the time comes) to know what Gloucester people think. Last night I read some to a friend of mine, and was surprised to find how little I cared for them, and how remote they seemed. As for Spring 1917, it is as I thought long dull, and unvaried…

With best wishes; Yours sincerely Ivor Gurney[2]

 

Finally, today, an update from Patrick Shaw Stewart, now with the Royal Naval Division in France. It’s a discursive letter, and I’ll make some cuts to get us to the good parts… who could he be reading, now that he’s reached the Western Front at last?

…The battery commander is out, so I am lying flat on my tummy in the grass outside his habitat in the amiable sun, waiting till he comes in; one of the pleasanter phases of war. When I have written to you, and X, and Y, and Z, I will
go on with Tom Jones, which I am in the middle of and which is far and away the best book I ever read. Messrs Meredith and James are simply silly beside it, and as for the Victorians ——–. I got through Sense and Sensibility the other day, by the way, not bad, but not half as good as Pride and Prejudice, or Emma.

I did tell you about our time up the line? It was quite agreeable, good weather (though a lot of mud), and a quiet time, very few casualties. I had rather luck having a chain of posts very much advanced in a rather well-known place, so far advanced as to be clear of mud and also clear of shelling. The only trial was that I hardly got a wink of sleep—one has to re-acquire the habit of sleeping in a sitting-position on a petrol tin in the later half of the morning…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 355.
  2. War Letters, 168-70.
  3. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 198-99.

Wilfred Owen Goes Nowhere; A Dire Change for Victor Richardson

As the dust of Messines–or rather the thousands of upheaved tons of earth–settles, we go back to London. A week ago Vera Brittain returned to spend her time with the terribly wounded Victor Richardson, whom she intends to marry.

Only a week later–the day after a strange early morning shock like an earthquake had shaken southern England with its sinister intimation of the terrific mine-explosion at Messines Ridge–my mother and I went to Chelsea to find the usually cheerful, encouraging Matron with a face grown suddenly grave and personal. There was an unexpected change, she said, in Victor that morning. He had told his nurse that during the night something had “clicked” in his head, like a miniature explosion; since then he had gradually grown vaguer and stranger… She thought that perhaps it wold be wise to send for his people.

After a period of delirium, Victor returns to consciousness later in the afternoon, but Vera is not reassured.

So much human wreckage had passed through my hands, but this . . . well, this was different.

‘Tah dear Tah!’ I whispered, in sudden pitying anguish, and I took his fingers in mien and caressed and kissed them as though he had been a child. Suddenly strong, he gripped my hand, pressed it against his mouth and kissed it convulsively in return. His fingers, I noticed, were damp, and his lips very cold.[1]

Victor’s family are summoned, and hurry to visit him in the hospital. Afterward, with Victor seeming to stabilize, they come to stay with the Brittains at their flat in Kensington.

 

And in France, Wilfred Owen continues in limbo. His wounds are psychological, and perhaps not severe enough to merit a return to blighty. Two days ago he had essayed a jokey list-letter to his mother, thus forming a crucial literary bridge between those odd questionnaires of Proust’s days and the plague of internet listicles of the early 21st century.

6 June 1917 41st Stationary Hospital

Dearest Mother,

I go down today. Where to?—Nobody knows. May be in the Hosp. Train for days.

Health: quite restored.
Mood: highest variety of jinks.
Weather: sub-tropical.
Time: 11 a.m.
Appearance: sun-boiled lobster.
Hair: 8% Grey.
Cash in hand: 5 francs.
Size of Socks: same as previous consignment.
Sole Complaints: Nostalgia
Mosquito Bites
Last Book Read: A picked Company by Belloc.
Clothing: sparse, almost faun.
Religion: Primitive Christian.
Aim in War: Extinction of Militarism beginning with Prussian.
Aim in Life: Pearls before Swine.
Medicine: Iron
Nerve: Iron—(over?-) wrought.
Favourite Metal: Silver.
Favourite Colour: Sky-violet.
Favourite Drink: Natural Lemon Juice.
Favourite Animal: Children…

And today, a century back, he confirmed the inevitable disappointment of yet another attempted move.

8 June [1917] 41st Stationary Hosp.

Dearest Mother,

Two days ago we started forth in motors for the Railhead: The Train was there, but no accommodation for Officers. The O.C. Train a minute doctor, with many papers and much pince-nez, refused to let us board: especially as a Major who was with us expressed himself thus: ‘Aw I decline. I ebsolutely decline, to travel in a coach where there are—haw—Men!’

…It was slightly too hot that afternoon: they put some twenty Germans into this sumptuous train, and left us stamping on the platform: some indeed lying on stretchers in blankets under the staring sun. When we got back to the Hospital we were.the objects of some very ungratifying applause from the unlucky ones left behind. I am still on the List, & the thing may come off more successfully tomorrow or on Monday.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 356-7.
  2. Collected Letters, 467-8.

Rowland Feilding Before Messines; Jack Martin Goes up the Line; Phillip Maddison to Test his Courage; A New Brief and a Fine Old Book for C.E. Montague; A Short Life of Francis Ledwidge

Early tomorrow morning will see one of the most dramatic “shows” of the war, and the most successful British opening to date. Rowland Feilding, has been heavily involved in the preparations for the battle, organizing a last-minute raid–a “success” despite the losses involved, as a number of Germans were captured–and nearly being blinded himself when a heavy-caliber German shell fell nearby during the retaliatory bombardment. Last night, a century back, Feilding’s battalion was relieved, and will spend the battle in a supporting role, giving him time to describe much of the action in a long letter to his wife. He sets the scene for her, and for us:

The village [Wytschaete] tops the crest of the Messines Ridge, and the breastworks, which we have occupied since we came from the Somme, last September, run across the swampy fields to the west of and below it, with the hospice (or convent)—represented by a heap of bricks—standing out prominently against the skyline, beyond the Petit Bois…

That evening (June 6) we tea’d in the open, about half a mile behind the fire-trench, our artillery shooting hard over our heads all the time, but eliciting no reply from the enemy. The Brigadier called and congratulated us on the success of the raid. He was in the best of form, and indeed everybody was very cheerful and full of confidence. It was very edifying to see the almost exhilarated state every one was in, both officers and men, seeing what a colossal business lay immediately before them. Later, we had dinner in the open… The 6th Connaught Rangers were to be broken up for the battle in order to provide “mopping up” and carrying parties for the attacking battalions, thus leaving me personally with very little to do, and after dinner I moved to my Battle Headquarters—a deep mined dug-out in Rossignol Wood, above which I am now writing this letter. The wood reeked of gas shells, to which the enemy further contributed during the night.[1]

 

Jack Martin, a signaler with the 122nd brigade, will be going forward soon after midnight.

This afternoon we were all ordered to pack everything in our valises, except fighting kit, and hand them to the care of the QM… I joined the Forward Party and moved up the line.

…It was a wretched night–the strain of waiting was great–our guns were going continually–Fritz was ‘nervy’…

Crowded into a forward trench, the men now have to endure bombardment from the German artillery which, although the extent of the underground preparations seem not to have been guessed, must realize that some sort of attack is in the offing.

I was crouched down in the trench with my back to Jerry when a small shell landed almost on the parapet a matter of only inches from my head. The trench came in on top of me, and, but for the fact that it was strongly revetted, I should have been completely buried. When the smoke and dirt had cleared away, the other fellows were surprised to see me pick myself up unhurt. Aitken said, ‘That one had got your name on it, Joe,’ ‘Yes,’ I replied,’ but it was the wrong number.’ It gave me a terrible shaking but it might have been worse.[2]

 

Henry Williamson is safe behind the lines on the now-quiet Somme front, but he has sent his alter ego north, and placed him behind the lines at Messines. The talk in the transport section of Phillip Maddison’s turned somewhat morbid. Never mind that thousands of Germans were about to die and thousands of British infantry go over the top–the transport men, though currently fairly safe, have to bring up ammunition through an interdiction barrage. They too are frightened, and they begin to talk of their mothers. Phillip, even though he is so close to the place his courage failed in 1914, decides that he feels confident–because “he himself had broken away” from his mother and because he has the love of the faithful Lily: “if he hadn’t the thought of Lily to keep him going, he would be windy himself.”

With nothing to do as midnight passes and with his confidence buoyed both by the love of Lily and by his assessment–rather perceptive, this–that the German counter-barrage will be enfeebled and directed elsewhere, Phillip begins to contemplate a walk toward the front…[3]

 

One of the wonders of this project, in a small way, is the realization that even when great and terrible events are in the offing, “ordinary” life goes on for the soldiers even as it does across the experiential gulf. C.E. Montague has just received a welcome reassignment: instead of being a glorified assistant propagandist and minder of journalists (many of whom were far less skilled than he, not to mention his unusual moral and physical courage), he “was now to hold a position of some authority… better than showman-work however variegated.” He is now an ‘assistant press officer,’ and will have more freedom to choose his own course and no direct involvement in the dissemination of propaganda.

So late tonight, Montague will pack several well-known journalists into cars and head for Messines. But first he sits down to write a letter to his wife. To whom, of course, he cannot mention the coming battle, even at this late hour. Instead, he discusses what any good literary soldier does in his spare time–in this case his reading of the master of malign fate (and of brave human resistance against it) is at once exasperated and grateful:

June 6, 1917

I have gone on with The Return of the Native, admiring it more than ever. . . . I had forgotten how directly Hardy’s pessimism is declared in the description of Clym Yeobright, where he says that mankind’s enjoyment of life must decline, and the view of life as ‘a thing to be put up with’ prevail, and that we shall all cease to admire beauty of face as distinct from full expression of experiences mainly painful and disillusioning. What perversity it is. Life only seems to me to be more of a wonder and glory and ecstasy, the more I see of it, and I feel it specially when reading Hardy’s own descriptions of beautiful-natured people like his faithful lovers, and of lovely places.[4]

 

Finally, today, Francis Ledwidge is in France, far enough from Messines and surely in ignorance of tomorrow’s huge attack. But even if he knew he would still use an infantryman’s rare hours of leisure to attend to his growing poetic reputation. He wrote today an extremely long letter to Professor Lewis Chase, from which I will excerpt a few choice rambles:

B.E.F
France, 6th June 1917

Dear Sir,

Your letter of May 15th reached me this afternoon. I have to thank you for introducing my books into your University library and for the interest which you take in my poems and will endeavour to supply you with what details you require of myself and my work for the composition of your proposed lecture. You will, of course, understand that I am writing this under the most inept circumstances between my watches, for I am in the firing line and may be busy at any moment in the horrible work of war.

I am on active service since the spring of 1915, having served in the Dardanelles and the First British Expeditionary Force to Serbia… Some of the people who know me least imagine that I joined the Army because I knew men were struggling for higher ideals and great empires, and I could not sit idle to watch them make for me a more beautiful world. They are mistaken. I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilization, and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions…

I am of a family who were ever soldiers and poets… I have heard my mother say many times that the Ledwidges were once a great people in the land, and she has shown me with a sweep of her hand green hills and wide valleys where sheep are folded which still bear the marks of dead industry and, once, this was all ours.

These stories, told at my mother’s doorstep in the owl’s light, are the first things I remember except, perhaps, the old songs which she sang to me, so full of romance, love and sacrifice. She taught me to listen and appreciate the blackbird’s song, and when I grew to love it beyond all others she said it was because I was born in a blackbird’s nest and had its blood in my veins. My father died when I was two…

The “Poet of the Blackbirds” goes on to describe his family and his early life.

There were four brothers of us and three sisters. I am the second youngest. For these my mother laboured night and day, as none of us were strong enough to provide for our own wants…

I was seven years of age when my eldest brother died, and though I had only been to school on occasional days I was able to read the tomb-stones in a neighbouring grave-yard and had written in secret several verses which still survive. About this time I was one day punished in school for crying and that punishment ever afterwards haunted the master like an evil dream, for I was only crying over Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village,” which an advanced class had been reading aloud.

It was in this same class that I wrote my first poem, in order to win for the school a half holiday…

Much as I would like to use the sheer bulk of the letter to enhance the slight irony of writing one’s life story on the brink of a major attack, patience dictates that we must skip the tale of Ledwidge’s early literary development. After a short and unhappy apprenticeship to a Dublin grocer, Ledwidge returns home.

I took up any old job at all with the local farmers and was happy. I set myself certain studies and these I pursued at night when I should be resting from a laborious day. I took a certificate of one hundred and twenty words a minute at Pitman’s shorthand, and soon knew Euclid as well as a man of Trinity College…  I read and studied the poets of England from the age of Chaucer to Swinburne, turning especially to the Elizabethans and the ballads that came before the great Renaissance. I thirsted for travel and adventure, and longed to see the Italy of Shelley and the Greece of Byron. But the poems of Keats and his sad life appealed to me most.

The young poet, in his own estimation at least, begins to mature:

I began to pick faults with Longfellow and Tennyson…

I burned many copybooks which contained fugitive pieces of my own because I thought it were better for them to die young and be happy than live to be reviled.

Georgian Poetry” (with my three excluded) contains, I think, the best poems of the century…

The letter continues in high good spirits, but it’s an open question whether the late switch to a torrent of unrelated anecdotes and quirks is produced because the poet is flattered to be the subject of academic interest, or because he knows that a fighting soldier who might wish to be remembered should give potential biographers as much, and as quickly, as he can.

I get more pleasure from a good line than from a big cheque. Though I love music I cannot write within earshot of any instrument. I cannot carry a watch on account of the tick, real or imaginary, and might as well try to sleep under the Bell of Bruges as in a room where a clock stands… I have written many short stories and one play which is declared a success by eminent playwrights who have read it…

The letter closes with several poems, including “Rainy Day in April,” “The Wife of Llew,” and Pan. Ledwidge assures the professor that the best is yet to come…

 

Tomorrow, the mines go up.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 183-88.
  2. Sapper Martin, 70-1.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 153.
  4. C.E. Montague, 161-2, 172-3

A Black Day for the Master of Belhaven; Charles Moncrieff is Up on Poetry; Wilfred Owen is Not in Amiens; Ivor Gurney on Russian Lit, and Art, and Life…

The Master of Belhaven‘s suspicion, yesterday, that the German artillery has his battery taped to the yard is confirmed today, a century back.

Zillebeke, 5th June, 1917

A black day. A and B Batteries have been shelled all day, and it is still going on now at 11 p.m. Ellis, my best subaltern, as been mortally wounded in the head by a piece of a 5.9. As for the battery position, it has practically ceased to exist. They have put several hundreds of 5.9’s right into the gun-line and blown up hundreds of rounds of ammunition. At 7 o’clock this evening I went over to the guns to see what the damage was, but the guns are so covered up with earth and bits of wreckage that it is impossible to see if they are damaged… at this rate we shall soon be very short of both horses and men.[1]

There are no surprise attacks on any sort of scale, any more, and the Germans are doing what they can to blunt the force of the coming British assault at Messines. They don’t know exactly when it will take place, but they know where, and that it will be soon…

 

Our other three brief notes today are from men who are well out of it.

First, Wilfred Owen wrote a postcard to his mother, today, a century back, from the 41st Stationary Hospital–and not from Amiens, pictured on the card.

A similar postcard…

3 June 1917

Am not here—no move yet—quite happy—you have some erroneous ideas about my state of health! I have a chum here—glorious in my eyes for having hob-nobbed with Ian Hay…

Things are vastly improving now in the management of this Hydro![2]

Ian Hay, a.k.a. John Hay Beith, author of The First hundred Thousand, would be a very relevant author to mention, since he wrote the mid-war book about Kitchener’s Army. But I’ve made precious little use of it here…

So forgive me if I succumb to a common weakness and add two more brief and undramatic bits which appeal to me because they show–and more to the point than an excerpt from Ian Hay, whose style and approach did not influence the poets–what other writers our writers were reading…

 

Charles Moncrieff, abed since almost losing his life and his leg at Arras, gives us our first clear indication of something that, had I been more timely in adopting his diaries, would have been obvious before: he will be very closely connected to our circle of war poets.

In Hospital,
5th June, 1917.

Thanks for The Times, which tantum vidi, as the wrapper was just off as it reached me…

This is a terrible morning, very hot, and people sweeping the floor all the time which drives me perfectly mad. I heard about Sorley from Robert Graves, himself an admirable young poet. He is the son of old A. P. Graves who was a school inspector and wrote Father O’Flynn[3]

 

And Ivor Gurney too reads on, though in great isolation. F.W. Harvey’s long imprisonment has deprived him of his one literary friend among his fellow-soldiers (yesterday’s portion of this letter to Marion Scott mentioned how much he would like to discuss Harvey’s book, just published though he is in absentia in Germany, with the author) and Gurney plows a lonely furrow through the classics…

Next Day.

They say Fritz has retreated again, and if this is so, more marching, more road making, short rations again. May General Russky be right about victory coming by Autumn.

There is heavy historical irony there, of course, given Russia’s state. But Gurney is off onto Russian literature, and never mind the solidity of the Eastern Front.

“The Cossacks” is a fine book, too small to be a great one — but accurate and life like. One cant help thinking that such a life us going on there, while in the Victorian books one is continually reminded of the fact that “this is not Life but only a description”. And by such gentlemanly people too!

I will take a huge dose of Russian stuff apres le guerre…

How often, I wonder, did Thackeray really look at life? He shows at his best in the “book of Snobs” and “Travels and Sketches” (is it?) — things related more to books and form than actuality. In fact he was an artist at one remove from things; the opposite of W H Davies in “The Autobiography of a Supertramp”, that most fascinating of records…

Brahms music at its not-best shows the same thing also — the mind of a man as satisfied in his study as in the open air. There are not many things that make worthy art. They are: Nature, Homelife (with which is mixed up Firelight in Winter, joy of companionship etc.) The intangible Hope (which means all music only can hope to express). Thoughts on Death and Fate. And there are no more. It is right, as R[obert]L[ouis]S[tevrenson] wrote, for a young man consciously and of purpose to regard his attempts as Art only, but this is a half stage, and should soon end, if the young man has anything to say.

End of the Treatise: Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 301-2.
  2. Collected Letters, 466.
  3. Diaries, 135.
  4. War Letters, 165-6.

Duff Cooper Gets the Call; Henry Williamson is Laid Low; C.E. Montague Draws Strength From Hardy; Woolf Praises Sassoon; Francis Ledwidge Gropes Toward God; Isaac Rosenberg Lifts His Eyes to the Larks

I don’t mean to make fun of Duff Cooper–he is a capable man, and not nearly as daffy as he sounds in his journal–but, until today, all we’ve heard of his recent decision to take an Army commission is that is seemed to yield positive short-term results in his endless pursuit of Diana Manners. Ah–but has he forgotten the other woman in his life? Yes, yes he has.

In the afternoon Mother telephoned. She has found about my prospects of joining the army. She is naturally much upset–it is most awkward.[1]

 

Nor did I set out to make fun of Henry Williamson, today, but this disjunction between diary and novel is… also pretty funny:

Thursday, 31 May. Kicked on head by Tommy.

The editors add, helpfully, that “Tommy was a mule.” Which, given that Williamson is a mule-riding Transport Officer–and despite the fact that he describes stubborn men as “mules”–should probably be taken literally, and not as a slight on the stubborn character of some insubordinate “Tommy Atkins.”[2]

In the novel, instead of this misadventure, Phillip Maddison attend a conference held by Captain Hobart in which he is initiated into further tactical secrets of the coming Messines Ridge attack. There is much admiration expressed for General Plumer, the rare innovator among the British senior officers and the man most responsible for the novel use of what are essentially early modern siege warfare tactics scaled up by several orders of magnitude and undertaken over the course of many months: there will be some very big mines. Which, of course, were top secret at the time.

After the conference Phillip goes walkabout, as he so often does. Leaving his work to his sergeant, Phillip strolls past signs and organizational tapes and models and remarks on the fact that every possible preparation for the coming attack has been carefully thought out. He is then struck by the idea that if such detailed tactical information were to be passed on to the men of the Machine Gun Company, surely it would be a good thing for morale, and who better to lecture them than himself…[3]

 

But today is a busy day, and with those bits of silliness out of the way we can move toward a few more formal literary accomplishments.

First, I’d offer this definition of a worthy novel: a book that can offer intellectual and emotional support to a reader burdened by cares and mired in doubt, yet far from any easy resonance with its subject matter. We have a nomination, then, today, from C.E. Montague, writing to his wife:

May 31, 1917

A man here has got The Return of the Native and I borrowed it last night and read the first few pages again. How wonderful they are—I do believe the finest opening ever written for a novel of that kind. I shall try, at odd times, to read on. There is something massive and hill-like about Hardy which makes him good to read during this passing madness of the world—he helps one to feel what a mass of durable things in human nature as well as in other ‘nature’ are going on all right, all the time, and will be there to come back to when the evil time is overpast.[4]

 

Time in its dogged unidirectionality is a strange thing. Thomas Hardy has held out an austere kind of hope to many of our writers, and his approval meant more to Siegfried Sassoon than that of any writer… but if one were to try to sell an unacquainted reader on the merits of Sassoon’s poetry today, a more powerful endorsement might be felt to come from a review of his verses that was published today, a century back, in the Times Literary Supplement:

…the beauty in them, though fitful, is of the individual, indefinable kind which comes, we know not how, to make lines such as we read over each time with a renewed delight that after one comes the other.[5]

Thus Virginia Woolf on The Old Huntsman and Other Poems.

 

We also have a relative rarity, today: a long letter from Francis Ledwidge. Written from reserve billets in France, to Katherine Tynan, it shows Ledwidge in the thick of the action and, characteristically, able to wring beauty from the terror and violence of his surroundings.

I would have written to thank you for the sweets, only that lately we were unsettled, wandering to and fro between the firing-line and resting billets immediately behind. This letter is ante-dated by two hours, but before midnight we may be wandering in single and slow file, with the reserve line two or three hundred yards behind the fire trench. We are under an hour’s notice. Entering and leaving the line is most exciting, as we are usually but about thirty yards from the enemy, and you can scarcely understand how bright the nights are made by his rockets. These are in continual ascent and descent from dusk to dawn, making a beautiful Crescent from Switzerland to the sea. There are white lights, green, and red, and whiter, bursting into red and changing again, and blue bursting into purple drops and reds fading into green. It is all like the end of a beautiful world. It is only horrible when you remember that every colour is a signal to waiting reinforcements or artillery, and, God help us if we are caught in the open, for then up go a thousand reds, and hundreds of rifles and machine-guns are emptied against us, and all amongst us shells of every calibre are thrown, shouting destruction and death. We can do nothing but fling ourselves into the first shell-hole and wonder as we wait where we will be hit. But why all this

I am indeed glad to think you are preparing another book of verse. Will you really allow me to review it? I don’t want money for doing it. The honour would be more worth than money…

A. E. sets me thinking of things long forgotten, and Lord Dunsany of gorgeous Eastern tapestry and carpets. Do you get such impressions from the books you love? I met a traveller in Naples who told me that he never read Andrew Marvell but he remembered a dunce’s cap and a fishing-rod he had when a boy, and never could trace the train of thought far enough back to discover where the connection lay. I am writing odd things in a little book whenever I can. Just now I am engaged in a poem about the Lanawn Shee, who, you remember, is really the Irish Muse. One who sees her is doomed to sing. She is very close to you. I am writing it in the traditional style of the ‘Silk of the Kine.’

Here are the opening verses:

Powdered and perfumed the full bee
Winged heavily across the clover,
And where the hills were dim with dew,
Purple and blue the West looked over…

There is some more of this exercise in willful aestheticism, but Ledwidge also includes a finished poem in a very different vein:

 

Ascension Thursday, 1917

Lord, Thou hast left Thy footprints in the rocks,
That we may know the way to follow Thee,
But there are wide lands opened out between
Thy Olivet and my Gethsemane.

And oftentimes I make the night afraid,
Crying for lost hands when the dark is deep,
And strive to reach the sheltering of Thy love
Where Thou art herd among Thy folded sheep.

Thou wilt not ever thus, O Lord, allow
My feet to wander when the sun is set,
But through the darkness, let me still behold
The stony bye-ways up to Olivet.

 

Yet neither Sassoon nor Ledwidge can lay claim to the most important poetic reference point of today. Isaac Rosenberg wrote recently to Gordon Bottomley (the letter was posted today, a century back) about a number of things, including his new work alongside the Royal Engineers, putting out barbed wire at night. The letter mentions both Dead Man’s Dump and Daughters of War, and also seems to indicate that he has completed “Returning, We Hear the Larks,” a poem which can speak for itself, about many things, not least that a poet walking in the shadow of the valley of death who chooses not to look to God might also look to nature–even here–and then, through nature’s verse-entwined messengers, to poetry.

Sombre the night is:
And, though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.
Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp—
On a little safe sleep.
But hark! Joy—joy—strange joy.
Lo! Heights of night ringing with unseen larks:
Music showering on our upturned listening faces.
Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song—
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man’s dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides;
Like a girl’s dark hair, for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.[6]

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 54.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 157.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 144-5.
  4. C. E. Montague, 161.
  5. See Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 360.
  6. I'm not entirely convinced by Moorcroft Wilson's dating of the poem to May 1917, but it seems plausible... and this is a poem that can't be left to slip through the cracks entirely...

Herbert Read Writes of Reading Writers Aright; Praise for Siegfried’s Lines; Henry Williamson’s Dark Journey; Vera Brittain Starts for Home

We’ll begin today with a letter from Herbert Read to Evelyn Roff. We don’t know Read well, and he’s different from many of our young officers–he reads Nietzsche! he hails from Yorkshire!–but, then again, not really all that different. He’s just another young poet, missing the English spring and reporting on his ambitious reading…

22.V.17

Your letter arrived yesterday and did indeed manage to convey to me the very spirit of spring in England, so that I was away in Yorkshire, with the daffodils in Farndale and the brown moors reviving with green–until my eyes were dim and my breath was still . . .  and then I began to curse the chance that makes of me an exile, and then to curse myself for a sentimental fool.

Spring we do have here, but in an abortive sort of way. The felled trees bloom, but for the last time, and forget-me-nots spring up among the ruins. But everything is sad, and our few flowers are like wreaths among so much desolation.

The lull I told you of is lasting longer than we expected, and we have now been in rest ten days. It is significant that during this time I have never been tempted to write to you–our present existence is rather passive and unimpressive. We spent most of the first week cleaning–skins and clothes. We are up early, drilling, etc., until noon, and then the rest of the day is left to our own devices, which mostly taking the form of football, riding, eating, reading, and various shooting competitions…

But any day–any hour–we expect sudden orders to back into the thick of it. And none of us really cares how soon those order come, for the sooner our fate is settled the better, we argue.

And that is that. The letter then turns to literature, as these letters so often do. Read and Roff’s mutual attraction is to some degree intellectual… which is to say that Read seems very interested in proclaiming and explaining his opinions. Despite her careful praise for Read’s youthful first volume of poems, Songs of Chaos, Roff’s other opinions do not meet with unconditional approval:

…I don’t see how Kipling fits in. He is one of my bêtes noires–a landmark in Philistia, though that is rather a rash judgment of the author of Kim and Puck of Pook’s Hill. It’s the man’s Idealism that is wrong–not his pure imagination. I’ll second your favour of Richard Jeffries and Morris, and Ruskin is good as art… Matthew Arnold no bon… The Rossettis are fine…[1]

Read doesn’t write much like our other poets–his “wreaths among so much desolation” seem at once those of an unreconstructed Romantic and a budding free verse rebel–but his reading is certainly “correct.” It will take a while for the appreciation of Kipling’s style and fertility and constancy to escape the bonds of his association with militarism and empire, but William Morris lurks behind many of our writers (Tolkien not least) and Richard Jeffries was beloved of both Charles Sorley and Edward Thomas. The boy just have to get himself to London… although Ypres is in the way.

 

Two days ago I mentioned a… highly improbable statement by Henry Williamson, namely that he had been sent on a flying visit to the War Office in London and somehow charmed his way into a new assignment on a signal course. His diary records nothing of the kind, but mentions that he is to be sent to a signalling course in one of the rear areas in France.

In today’s letter to his mother, however, he repeats the tale:

22 May

Dear Mother, Just a short note to let you know I am O.K., and a staff job at last!!! And on Army Staff Corps too!!! I got it by luck–went to the W.O. the other day special duty, & came back to a course, & clicked at once.

This makes no sense. The editor of his papers breaks in with a rare parenthetical to write that “there is no detail or confirmation of this rather extraordinary event.” Worse, there is no further bragging or later fictionalizing, which are de rigueur with Williamson.

So it seems clear that he just made the story up, for no reason (that I can see) other than to impress his mother and mislead his family. They are meant to think, I guess, that he has somehow “wangled” a “staff” job, when in fact he has merely been sent to learn signal work, either because the Army likes sending officers on courses or because his own unit wants to be rid of him…[2]

 

Before we come to a leave-taking in Malta, let’s take this pleasant interlude from the pen of none other than Alfred Percival Graves, Celtophile, man of letters, and father to Robert. He, too, has been urged by son to read his friend’s verses and–despite possible misgivings about the satiric tone of some of the poems–he wrote approvingly to Siegfried Sassoon today, a century back, in (light) verse of his own.

The Hindenburg Line
By bombardment and mine,
We may wear through,
Or tear through
Or powder quite fine,
But I Donner-wetter!
I know of a better
And mightier line!
None other can shape it…

The Siegfried we call it.

Yours really delighted with the Old Huntsman and other poems,

A.P.G.[3]

 

Finally, then, Vera Brittain. She has decided to come home, to be of what use she can to her family–and to Victor Richardson, last of her brother’s intimate friends, blind and badly wounded. She is breaking her contract as a V.A.D., but this is permissible, and, really, the bureaucracy has been surprisingly swift in giving its permission and sending her home. She will look back on today as the beginning of a journey with nothing of the romance that clung to the journey out.

On May 22nd, with a small home party of home-going Sisters and V.A.D.s, I began my long, dirty and uncomfortable journey to an England that seemed, at the outset, curiously improbable and remote. We had to send our heavy luggage by sea… and were allowed to carry only one package, into which, disregarding uniform and equipment, I stuffed the silks, laces, pale blue kimono and other treasures acquired in Valleta. We were told to carry food for six days, and filled our haversacks with bread, butter, tinned milk and potted meat, all of which had become repulsively languid by the end of the second outrageously hot day. Somehow I found a corner for my diary…

Yes, her neglected diary. Well, habits change, and, alas, it will continue to be neglected, leaving us more dependent on reminiscence and correspondence. But she did describe today, a century back:

May 22nd

Left Malta. I hated to go, for I had been very happy there, & it was a real pain to say goodbye to Stella, with whom I have been for so long.

We were taken by transport to Grand Harbour, & after waiting on docks for about an hour, put on the Isonzo. It was a rough, wet & stormy day, & as there were no chairs we had to sit on deck on our piled-up luggage. We had not been long out of the harbour when the waves seemed mountains high &: the ship pitched & rolled to an angle, as they afterwards told us, of 42°. All the luggage piled up at the back, to say nothing of ourselves, rolled down the deck right as far as the rails. This happened three times; the last time I sat in almost two inches of dirty water, & slid in it nearly down to the rails, which effectually ruined all the clothes I had on.[4]

To this cranky diarist’s account she will add, much later, a smooth memoir-writer’s touch.

I do not know why I omitted an incident which I recalled long after other details of the journey were forgotten–the melancholy sadness of listening, at sunset in Syracuse harbour, to the “Last Post” being sounded for a Japanese sailor who had been washed overboard from the destroyer that had acted as our convoy across the turbulent Mediterranean.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Contrary Experience 95-6.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 154.
  3. See Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 362.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 341.
  5. Testament of Youth, 347-8.

Siegfried Sassoon Decries Religion–and a Safe Job; The Master of Belhaven Digs In

Siegfried Sassoon is ill at ease in Sussex, despite the beautiful weather and the kind attentions of his hosts. Actually, those hosts have something to do with it. He had only pity for the age-wracked statesman Lord Brassey, but Lady Brassey has been more of a challenge. To her unquestioning acceptance of patriotism, piety, and propriety she has added an ignorance of Thomas Hardy, that surest guide to the heath-wandering God-accuser. Lady Brassey’s efforts to shape this young officer’s future course may, then, go somewhat off course.

May 21

Lady Brassey and I discuss religion. Agree that C. of E. ‘is a bit passé’. But some formula is necessary until ‘people have learned to do without a Church’. ‘Our Lord never told us to go to church.’

But I cannot believe that such faith is beyond question if it cannot join issue with wholesome disbelief. Grim, wise fatalism like Hardy’s has never touched her; she would not allow it to disturb her serene optimism. Hardy is merely ‘an unpleasant writer’, as my own mother would say. Lady B. dabbles in Christian Science. She is fond of the word mystical (so meaningless). ‘Mock-turtle Religions.’

She is very kind; and judicial about things. Apropos of the idea of my taking a job in England till ‘my nerves’ are all right, she doesn’t want me ‘dangling about and writing poetry’. She is undoubtedly right, but I still think I’d better go back to the First Battalion as soon as possible, unless I can make some protest against the War.[1]

So three very different course of action present themselves in no more than two sentences. Sassoon is temperamentally opposed to the idea of taking a “safe job–” and he might still be even if he were not both traumatized by his trench experiences and galled by the conflict between his military loyalties and his increasingly radical political views of the war.  But “Mad Jack,” our quondam “Happy Warrior,” does not seem to imagine any sort of satisfaction in any job that keeps him from what he sees as the one purely positive aspect of the war: the bond between fighting men.

So half-measures are to be scorned. It is back to the fray, or a public protest.

 

And Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, reminds us today of some of the more prosaic aspects of discipline, leadership, and military morale. He had been assigned to a new battery, and now he needs to make it run to his own specifications. On the 17th, he wrote that

They all seem to be pretty good, but naturally there are many small things that I shall want to alter. Every battery commander has his own methods, and I shall have everything done precisely as in my old battery. The mess is quite bad… the cooking vile…

On the 19th, things seemed to be developing much as he had expected:

They are not bad at all, but nothing to boast about.. I had no idea the weather could be so nice in this beastly Flanders…

And then we must assume, really, that the men are alright, and not kicking against the newly-tightened traces. For, by today, a century back, other troubles (reminiscent of The Spanish Farm Trilogy) rear their intractable heads:

I am having great trouble with the farmer’s wife; she has put in a claim for fr. 3,000 damages to the grass of one field… These Flemish peasants are all the same…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 171.
  2. War Diary, 286-9.