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.

Siegfried Sassoon Pedals Away from His Past Life, Stephen Graham lolls in the Altai, Phillip Maddison Shivers in the City, and Peter Jackson Dominates at the Net

Stephen Graham, intrepid journalist and travel writer, will not officially qualify for inclusion in our great game for quite a while–he will not see France for more than three years. But he did see some unusual sights at the beginning of the war, and his rather syrupy writing should carry a day like today, as we teeter on the edge of the Last Summer’s Last Weekend–1914’s week is one day ahead of ours, today being, a century back, a Friday.

Thousands of miles from any of the rest of our correspondents, hanging around one of the outlying settlements of a tottering and backward empire, Graham was nevertheless a witness to the accelerating effects of technological progress. A century on, we tend to overemphasize the extent of our globalization and interconnectedness. Things move faster now, but the shrinking of the globe had, in the most fundamental ways, already occurred, a century back: even the Tsar had a telegraph system that moved his orders thousands of miles in a matter of hours.

I was staying in an Altai Cossack village on the frontier of Mongolia when the war broke out, 1,200 versts south of the Siberian railway, a most verdant resting-place, with majestic fir forests, snow-crowned mountains range behind range, green and purple valleys deep in larkspur and monkshood. All the young men and women of the village were out on the grassy hills with scythes; the children gathered currants in the wood each day, old folks sat at home and sewed furs together, the pitch-boilers and charcoal-burners worked at their black fires with barrels and scoops, and athwart it all came the message of war. At 4 A.M. on July 31st the first telegram came through, an order to mobilise and be prepared for active service. I was awakened that morning by an unusual commotion, and, going into the village street, saw the soldier population collected in groups, talking excitedly. My peasant hostess cried out to me, “Have you heard the news? There is war.”

A young man on a fine horse came galloping down the street, a great red flag hanging from his shoulders and flapping in the wind, and as he went he called out the news to each and every one, “War! War!” Horses out, uniforms, swords!

…The Tsar had called on the Cossacks; they gave up their work without a regret and burned to fight the enemy. Who was the enemy? Nobody knew.[1]

In his next book about his Russian and Asian travels, Graham gives us perhaps the most far-flung Englishman Abroad version of a Last Summer piece. He imagines England, now that it is

holiday time, the end of July, the Englishman’s great liberation moment when, even if he goes on working in office or factory, he ceases to work hard and lazes at his work. His wife and family have gone to the seaside. He will join them in a week or so. Meanwhile he is “camping out at home.” The young man is buying stout boots and greasing them for tramping, is scanning maps and guidebooks, and making absurd tables of mileage, prospective hotel bills and expenses.

And where is Graham?

Just outside the Cossack settlement it was late summer, and the glossy peony fruits were turning crimson from green, opening to show rows of black teeth – seeds. But as you climbed upward toward the snow the season changed, and it was possible to recover the lost spring…

It was comparatively easy to reach districts where it might be thought no foot of man had ever trod–primeval moss-grown forest…

Above this jungle was a stretch of steep mountain-side sparsely grown with young firs, and then grey, barren, slippery rock. Wonderful shelves and chasms, fissures, precipices, and ways up without ways down, boulder-strewn tracks and founts of bubbling water, milk-white streams, crystal streams.

Most days I spent by the side of a little mountain river, where I built a sort of causeway out of rocks, diverted the channel, made a deep bathing-pool–enthralling occupations. Here also I had a bonfire, made coffee, baked potatoes, cooked red currant jam. Strips of red currants hung like bunting on some of the bushes, and were so thick that you could pick a potful in a quarter of an hour. Here also I sorted out and re-read thirty or forty copies of The Times, saved up for me, with letters, at the post office of Semipalatinsk–all the details of the political quarrel over Ulster, the resignation of Sir John French (as he was then called), of Colonel Seely, the vigorous speeches of Mr. John Ward, the brilliant defences of Mr. Asquith. We seemed to be running forward silently and smoothly to an exciting rebellion or civil war in Ireland, and nobody seemed to deplore the prospect of strife. The Government, nominally in favour of peace at all costs, were incapable of preventing their opponents obtaining arms, and were, therefore, allowing their friends to arm. On the whole we seemed to be tired of the dull blessings of peace, out of patience with peace. Yet we were not ready for the strife that was coming, though certainly in a mood to take arms. It is astonishing that with our many international characters – those diplomatical journalists of ours – we did not know what was coming, or no one was at pains to undeceive us….

It is astonishing to look back now to those serene and happy weeks in the Altai and to feel the contrast of the innocence of Nature and the devilish conspiracy in the minds of men. If there are devils in the world, black spirits as opposed to white spirits, what triumph was theirs, what hidden ecstasy as at the coming triumph of negation. Behind the screen of this silence horns were blowing announcing the great feasts of death, the blasting of the temples wherein the spirit of man dwells, the orgy of ugliness and madness.[2]

Awfully purplish prose, even though Graham is looking back from a comparatively near future–it feels as if the spectres and trumpets, so blatantly super-imposed, shade the memories of July to a hew of technicolor wistfulness we can’t quite trust.

Still, like Vera’s daily diary summaries of The Times, a nice way (I hope) to sneak an ironic reminder of how much the gaze of the war’s future participants was, that summer, astray. They gazed at the pretty flowers, whether in the Altai or Kew Gardens, or they stared in consternation across the Irish Sea…

 

Back home in Kent, we pick up Siegfried Sassoon after his day of cricket and stormy pianoforting.

Next day, which was July 31st, it seemed that any form of movement would be preferable to the intolerable suspense of waiting for further bad news… A good long bike-ride, I decided–even if it didn’t stop me thinking–might perhaps enable me to think with a less benumbed brain.

Bicycling to Rye–a distance of thirty miles which I covered without dismounting–I felt very much as if I were pedalling away from my past life. My unseeing eyes were on the dusty road, and my brain was automatically revolving the same ideas over and over again. In the leisurely contentment of normal times I should have looked at the country and remembered how I had ridden over it with the Mid-Kent Stag Hounds. I should have stopped to note some place where I jumped a fence into the road or a stile out of it. That sort of thing had now been wiped off the map. Germany, France, and Russia were all rumoured to be mobilizing. As for me, I was merely resorting to restless exertion while disentangling my mind from its reluctance to face the fact that the only thing left or me to do was to mobilize myself into the Army… Having achieved this decision, which seemed embarrassingly heroic, I approached Rye feeling more relieved than elated…

I ate a big tea, lit my pipe, and stared seaward toward Winchelsea from the friendly terrace of an old inn on what had once been the city wall. Having renounced independence of action (joining the army meant that, I assumed) I now felt immune from any sense of responsibility… I should have been quite put out if someone had told me that there might not be a war after all, for the war had become so much my own affair that it was–temporarily and to the exclusion of all other considerations–merely me! It even occurred to me that–whatever else I might be in for–there was no more cause to worry about money. And I did not need to be reminded that–not many days ago–I had been faced by a deplorably unfertile future. I was clear of all that, anyhow.

And so our Siegfried, however much he usually dawdles, trailing the play of his more mentally agile acquaintances, is a good step and a half ahead of everyone else–it’s only Friday, with the Fateful Bank Holiday Weekend still in the future, and yet his mind his made up.

It’s curious: is this about patriotism (yes–or at least in the same basic sense that all “gentlemen” thought it incumbent upon them to volunteer if they were fit; Sassoon is just quiet about that) or about escaping debt and poetic dead ends (a little bit, but he could have continued to dawdle at home indefinitely)? It’s also the larger and more diffuse question of the meaning of life in late youth: as indolent as he was and as slow as he makes himself out to be, Sassoon was not a fool. Neither was he a cynic, nor a hedonist. He was wealthy, but he felt he needed to do something, and so the war, even with his lack of jingoism or bloodthirstiness, was welcome.

Still, bicycling home, he realizes that he has decided to involve himself in an enormous and terrible struggle–a better thing to be a pawn in than to contemplate from without. Back home, he dismounts with “a sinking sensation in my middle,” and the latter-day Sassoon suddenly throws this telescopic view of one fateful day into binary vision.

Observing that bicyclist from to-day, I find it difficult to imagine and share his emptiness and immaturity of mind, so clueless, so inconsequent, and so unforeseeing. Confronted by that supreme crisis, he rides to meet it in virtual ignorance of its origins and antecedents… Confused and uncomprehending, he has no precedent to guide and instruct him.[3]

This is a bit thick–another last crashing chord for the Last Summer theme of Perfect Innocence, albeit with the emphasis falling the blindness of foresight rather than the richness of hindsight–but it’s not unfair. Sure: we can wonder, here in the after, why there was so much complacency when politics had been so volatile for so many years (although there’s your answer right there…) and we might hope that a firmer understanding of history would head off such immaturity in the future (sure! Why not?), but the crucial note is a true one: there has been no big European war in more than a generation, and no British involvement in such a conflict in ninety-nine years. There is no one to instruct him.

 

The willingness to ironize, to complicate the past and retell pristine experience as a protest against what will come,is very familiar now–a staple of war writing. But it wasn’t then. A more typical approach is that of Gilbert Frankau, a popular middlebrow novelist of the war. Here is the knowledgeable and skilful Peter Jackson, on holiday in Berkshire:

Peter, playing brilliantly at the net, and Patricia, backing him up accurately from the base-line, defeated their opponents in three straight setts [sic]. Followed [sic again, it’s an affectation] tea, a languid paddle towards Shiplake, the dressing-gong, stiff shirts and low frocks, auction bridge…

July the thirty-first, Nineteen Hundred and fourteen ! Already the Beasts in Gray–murder, rape, and plunder in their swinish eyes–were abroad. Already the Crime, so long premeditated, had been committed. Even as these four sat at their game, less than fifty miles away from them, up in London, amiable old gentlemen of Westminster were scuttling hither and thither, incredulous, anxious to compromise, fearful.

“Two no trumps,” said our Mr. Jackson.[4]

Follows snark. The style is clunky, and after Sassoon’s Sassoon, it is jarring to read of a protagonist whose mental processes are so thinly drawn, whose thoughts chime in Capital Letters along with the fussy and bombastic narratorial voice…

 

Less sensitive, if perhaps even less subtle, is Henry Williamson’s rendering of his alter ego’s last Friday in the office.

It was Friday, the last day of July. Desmond was home from school… Willie was arriving that afternoon at Waterloo; Monday was August Bank Holiday. Then, very soon, camp at Eastbourne! Life was tremendous fun, really. [Williamson’s emphasis.]

And yet–and yet–somehow, under everything, a feeling of coldness, of longing, of dread, was growing; and the feeling became entered on the talk of war, which, stealthily, and in secret, was a thing to be desired. War–everyone spoke about it… Secretly, awefully, fearfully, one part of him desired the excitement that was war to become more and more; while another part of him quailed before a vast, fathomless darkness.

When the news comes in that the Lutine bell has been rung, the older men of the office suddenly drop their eminently British assurances that business will proceed as usual–all the Mr. Darlings suddenly wonder what the long weekend will bring, whether business will indeed proceed on Tuesday.

Young Phillip, yet to figure out that his larkish enlistment in the Territorial Army will now mean something very different than a second-holiday-ish camp at Eastbourne, nevertheless accepts the verdict of his current superiors: war is all but inevitable. Williamson makes quite sure we know the confusion this wreaks in the soul of a simple British boy:

Phillip felt a cold shiver pass through him, and then the fearful longing for war, like a dark spectre.[5]

References and Footnotes

  1. Graham, Russia and the World, 1-2.
  2. Graham, Through Russian Central Asia, 248-52.
  3. The Weald of Youth, 270-73.
  4. Peter Jackson, 47.
  5. How Dear is Life, 116-19.