It’s another one of those unexpectedly bountiful days in which a central writer is busily writing important poems while other diarists insist upon having the sort of experiences we can’t leave unrecorded…
Briefly then, through our first two. We find Charles Scott Moncrieff ill and in Amiens… and distinctly unimpressed. Perhaps it is the mark of the true Francophile (or, at least, the self-consciously discerning tourist) to be breezy about attractions like the great cathedral:
No. 1 N.Z. Stationary Hospital,
14th February, 1917.
. . . I went out to-day and saw the Cathedral, which certainly is very perfect and harmonious, walked the streets for a couple of hours and bought some books…
And my own desire to forgo lengthy typing and move on to two important sonnets and a stark first-hand tale of loss and death will contribute, now, to Edwin Vaughan‘s persistent experience of anti-climax. Tonight, a century, back, he will reach the front line trenches at last, and I’ll cut down his diary by more than half…
It as a long and winding trench, which rather bewildered me, for the scattered sentry posts seemed to face in all directions… We hit the front-line trench at right angles, and almost opposite was another cellar into which Hatwell had disappeared in a moment.
I hardly noticed the troops melting away into different directions, but suddenly found myself quite alone outside the cellar. For a quarter of an hour I sat up against the side of the trench, soaking in the atmosphere. It was quite dark and damp, around my feet the mud was six inches deep, and above me I could see only the faint outline of the parapet all jagged and broken with bricks and stumps and over it the dim silhouette of loose wire. Occasionally a huge rat would scamper past, or a couple of men would stagger by, swearing gently at their load of sandbags or stakes. All was deathly quiet except for the low voices in the dugout or the faint click of a bayonet against a steel hat.
Vaughan later tours the positions on the line, finding a number of men quietly and efficiently doing their work, the sentries watching the Germans intently, all business. Returning to the dugout, Vaughan reconsiders his attitude:
When we had been out of the line, I had despised these officers and NCOs and criticized the men, but now I realized that I was the most useless object in the Company… still confused, wondering and fearful.
I drank several whiskies and dozed for an hour or two…
Now for poetry. Ivor Gurney wrote again to Marion Scott today, a century back, continuing his new project of a counter-Brookean sonnet sequence.
14 February 1917
My Dear Miss Scott:
…The fates have been kind to me, and still leave me as canteen attendant; which means that though freezing one has time to oneself, and are off those confounded cleaning parades, which so gnaw at my life.
How are you and your influenza now? There can be little gadding about for you anyway, yet who knows what February may bring — that sometimes is so kind and smiles like Spring. Well, good luck to both of us, as I fancy cold is little good to either. And your book, tient-il? If you can sit up and refound musical literature, things will not be so bad; it would be like a Nice Blighty, which I do most heartily desire the Lord to send myself. Anyway do not get too ill to write…
This, I’ll wager, is Gurney being charmingly/winkingly, rather than obnoxiously/obliviously, self-centered.
There is more literature in this letter, but not yet. The literal translation of the pretty name of this place is The Star, and there are Earthworks all round, remains of 1870. Soon we go up again to the trouble; soon Fritz will be hurling high explosive compliments at us with gusto, and we close to the parapets. Well, tres bien, if there is no soft job, the hard one must do, but the first is better.
The title of the book I would prefer to be “Songs from Exile, or Songs from the Second Fifth” as subtitle. That is the real title, and besides, the second needs writing up to which I am unwilling to do.
This would be the first book of poems, which Scott is preparing for him. Now, then, for nos. 2 and 3 of the counter-attack on Rupert Brooke:
When we go wandering the wide air’s blue spaces,
Bare, unhappy, exiled souls of men;
How will our thoughts over and over again
Return to Earth’s familiar lovely places.
Where light with shadow ever interlaces
No blanks of blue, nor ways beyond man’s ken —
Where birds are, and flowers; as violet, and wren,
Blackbird, bluebell, hedgesparrow, tiny daisies,
O tiny things, but very stuff of soul
To us . . . so frail. . . Remember what we are;
Set us not on some strange outlandish star.
But one love-responsive. Give us a Home.
There we may wait while the long ages roll
Content, unfrightened by vast Time-to-come.
The direct appeal to the reader here is striking, but perhaps not to every taste. We might dismiss it as almost maudlin, and hardly much of an improvement upon Brooke–a romanticizing of soldierly estrangement and suffering in exchange for a romanticizing of soldierly sacrifice.
So leave aside the ending, if it doesn’t suit; it’s the stuff of the appeal that matters. Until recently, Gurney has been dreamily, gauzily idealizing the countryside of his native Gloucestershire whenever he picks up his poet’s pen. Which is all very nice, but far from the war, no? But now he is bringing that loyalty to bear, mobilizing the stored energy produced by all that beauty, those lightly lovely birds and flowers, to say something about the war. We might miss it, if we didn’t have the Brookean intertext (apologies!): this isn’t about death and the harm-obscuring vision of a foreign-field-that-might-be, neatly adorned with English birds and flowers. It’s about drawing connections from a trench-that-is–a real trench, in a real corner of an actual French field–a trench that shelters living, frightened Englishmen all the way back to the memories of Home that might sustain them… These are day-dreaming, homesick men, looking for solace. They are not ghosts, yet, and they don’t seem enamored of the idea of their death, beautiful and meaningful or otherwise. Gurney is sacrificing his present comfort, his strength, his health; he’s not willing to dwell prettily on the likelihood that he will be dead soon, and call that a sacrifice as well…
If this sonnet re-connects to England in a different way, the next one–taking the sharply divided Petrarchan form–works around that new connection until it’s an unyielding grapple that forces us to confront the dreary misery of real soldiering… before releasing us, suddenly, to remind us what the homesick man relies upon most: not thoughts of England, but other Englishmen.
It it were not for England, who would bear
This heavy servitude one moment more?
To keep a brothel, sweep and wash the floor
Of filthiest hovels were noble to compare
With this brass-cleaning life. Now here, now there
Harried in foolishness, scanned curiously o’er
By fools made brazen by conceit, and store
Of antique witticisms thin and bare.
Only the love of comrades sweetens all.
Whose laughing spirit will not be outdone.
As night-watching men wait for the sun
To hearten them, so wait I on such boys
As neither brass nor Bosches may appall.
Nor guns, nor sergeant-major’s bluster and noise.
This is something new indeed. The old sonnet (Gurney’s spelling is… unusual) refurbished rather than merely dusted off. Only the love of comrades–and the brutal opposition of all things red-tabbed and unfeeling, explosive and chickenshit–could breathe new life into the form. But I should hush and let the poet explain:
These Sonnetts. For England. Pain. Homesickness. Servitude, and one other; are intended to be a sort of counterblast against “Sonnetts 1914”, which were written before the grind of the war and by an officer (or one who would have been an officer).
Thus far, Gurney’s claims are both radical and traditional. Down with the officer class and the privileged poet? Perhaps, but, so far, only on the strength of a claim to an alternate source of authority: these are the poems of a veteran, and of a soldier–one who bears the grind, and grinds no one in return.
They are the protest of the physical against the exalted spiritual; of the cumulative weight of small facts against the one large. Of informed opinion against uninformed (to put it coarsely and unfairly) and fill a place. Old ladies wont like them, but soldiers may, and these things are written either for soldiers or civilians as well informed as the French what “a young fresh war” means. (Or was it “frische (joyful) Krieg”. I cant remember, but something like it was written by the tame Germans in 1914.) I know perfectly well how my attitude will appear, but — They will be called “Sonnetts 1917.”
A counter-blast indeed, although a fairly restrained one, given what poetry will come. The civilians themselves are not attacked, and the sensitive among them are invited to join the side of virtue, of solidarity.
Is this, then, a “political” gesture? Not really–certainly not primarily. I don’t think these sonnets would have arrived just because Brooke’s themes–the beauty of sacrifice, the moral cleanliness of heading off to war–now feel outdated. There’s a poetic axe to grind, too.
Gurney had initially admired Brooke’s sonnets, after crossing paths with them in Edward Thomas’s review, but he had later turned rather decisively against them, writing one of his own first sonnets in a mood of resistance that both presaged this “counter-blast” and invoked Hardy. As Thomas realized, as Sorley damningly pointed out, Brooke was “far too obsessed with his own sacrifice.” Gurney has come to write not of the soldier’s (i.e. the officer’s) inner beliefs but of the men who are two and a half years into shouldering a painful, nasty burden–and of his love for them.
But that’s not all, folks. Unless he misdated one or another of his letters (not unthinkable at all), Gurney received a letter from Scott and then sat down to write her another:
14 February 1917
My Dear Friend:
Thank you so much for your letter of the 5th of Feb…
…Most of the spare time till now has been in cleaning, always cleaning equipment. For anyone with more sensibility than the yokel it is a life infinitely full of pain. Whether the wind blows gales of icy needles with the temperature below zero; always the same. And no fires now, in most billets: From this, you will gather that “Rest” is merely a technical term. If you will take the trouble to copy out all those things one by one, please do so, and thank you — but dont write shorter letters because of it.
I shall be content if you attend to all matters of punctuation and merely ask my opinion on doubtful points. The name, as I have said is
Songs in Exile
or Songs from the Second-Fifth
The first poem will be To Certain Comrades; the last poems, the five sonnetts. (Perhaps an Envoi also.) Any poem you think needs correction, send on, and fear nothing…
So the sonnets are to close his first volume.
Gurney seems to wander, now, in his thoughts, but he was also discussing books in the previous letter, and it would seem now as if Scott has inquired after his reading. And who am I to delete a reference that suits my notions of Honesty and Influence in Great War Literature? After that, Gurney trails off into his post-war hopes–he is a composer too, we must remember.
“Under the Greenwood Tree” is perfectly charming, and very Shakespearean in feeling I think. Hardy is a marvel…
With these beautiful days it becomes more of a loss to feel music and books so far away, and my county. And the days slipping past so quickly in which I ought to acquire technique and get rhythm into my mind. Once I get back, for a while I will simply reek songs; mere exudations; while I study hard Wagner and Rachmaninoff and the Russians; also the 3 B’s and Folk Song for pleasure; and Chopin for piano technique. But, Time, you are so slow, and hold the secrets of doubtful things not yet disclosed…
Your sincere friend
Last and certainly not least, it’s a terrible day in the life or a writer whose great reputation rests far from his war writing. When we last heard from J.R. Ackerley, he was recounting his wounding during the disaster of the First Day on the Somme (he also later wrote verse about that morning). There are few dates in his memoir, and little in his written record that can fix him here, a century back. But today, well, there is.
In the meantime, Ackerley has recovered from the Somme–in body, at least–and learned to live awkwardly as an undeserving hero. And he has been promoted.
Yet so strange are we in our inconsistencies that I was not happy in Blighty and, in a few months’ time, got myself sent back to France.
So he has been enduring this brutal winter, but not alone: nearly two months ago, his brother Peter–older, but behind in his military progress due to an injury–joined him in the 8th East Surreys. So elder saluted younger, “gladly and conscientiously.” As our J.R. Ackerley–younger brother Joe–notes with cold irony, the only reason that he has obtained the rank of captain and Company Commander is because everyone else was killed on July 1st.
And then we come to today, a century back, and a very local attack to be mounted on a German position near Miraumont.
In front of my trenches, some four or five hundred yards away and slightly to the left, there was a bulge or salient in the German lines known as Point 85. It was a tiresome object, for it commanded a dangerous enfilading position down the trenches of the battalion next door.
Just the sort of thing for a quick surprise rush attack, needing only a platoon, and a likely subaltern to lead it.
We know what will happen, and Ackerley’s tone and voice erase any doubt…
…my brother got the job. Did he actually volunteer for it? It is one of the many things I am not clear about, but I fancy that he did. At any rate it is the sort of thing he would have done–and the very thing he wanted… he must have been longing to prove himself, and here was a situation which would have appealed to the actor in him, drama indeed, the lime-lit moment, himself in the leading role, all eyes on him. At all events, the result was that I had to make arrangements for him and his platoon to take off from my front line…
The stage was therefore fatefully set, and my brother bungled his entrance.
The newcomer is unaware that the jumping-off point, his brother’s dugout in Boom Ravine, is–much like the deep dugout not far away which recently sheltered Wilfred Owen–under the thumb of the German artillery. It is a German dugout, and thus deep and safe, but with its location is precisely known. So the shells never miss by much. What’s worse,
Unknown to him, the poor boy’s watch had stopped… his troops could be heard chatting, coughing, grousing, and clattering their equipment in the ravine above, all the welcome he got was a rough ticking off from Major Wightman who sent him flying back upstairs to deploy and silence his men.
I remember my brother when he returned standing before me in the candlelight, bunched up in his Burberry and equipment, loaded with hand-grenades and stuck about with a revolver, wire-cutters and Very pistol, his cap set jauntily at an angle. His visit, now that he was late, was of the briefest…
I offered him a quick drink, I remember; he said, “No thanks, I’ll take my rum with the men,” Then, could we swap watches, his own being unreliable. He would return mine afterwards, he said. A heroic remark, and as I helped him strap on my watch, probably we both saw it unbuckled from his dead wrist. But then it was impossible to speak the most commonplace word or makes the most ordinary gesture without its at once acquiring the heavy over-emphasis of melodrama…
Then my brother’s hand thrust out to shake my own, his twisty smile, my “Good luck,” his jocular salute. “Don’t worry, sir,” said he to the Major as he left. It was his only piece of self-indulgence. His thin putteed legs retreated up the dugout steps and the sack curtain swung to behind him. I never saw him again.
Ackerley doesn’t so much mask his grief as shrug his shoulders at it. What can be done?
Peter Ackerley was shot during an attempt to take point 85, a tiny preliminary to a larger assault a few days hence. The battalion war diary notes that the attack began at 5:45.
5 minutes later a counter barrage opened up… Phone lines were cut immediately and runners were sent to HQ. The situation was very obscure and 2/Lt Ackerley was wounded and about 6 of his men were seen to have reached point 85.
When exactly he died is not clear… but his brother, Joe, our observer in the trench, our writer, seems certain that his brother has been killed