A momentous day, today, a century back, in Great War Writing-Land. Or, rather, an overture to an important new movement, a bridging of the gulf, an act of loyal defection in the conflict of the generations.
Why has Siegfried Sassoon been so unconcerned about his friend’s new poetic friendship–about the fact that Robert Graves will be a dedicatee of Robert Nichols‘s new book? (And if Sassoon knew Edward Thomas–he does not!–there would be Thomas’s upcoming dedication to Frost to be worried about too. But these are different circles…)
And it’s not just friendships. What about posturing? Why hasn’t Sassoon, like Richard Aldington, gotten those old-fashioned poets firmly in his sights? If he isn’t arrayed against some poetic malefactor(s), how is he to make a successful modern poet of himself?
Well, well: because he’s been working another angle. His respect and admiration for Thomas Hardy is sincere, but it is no doubt useful that Sassoon’s uncle is a friend of Hardy’s, and has carved a bust of him. That introduction paved a way for a first reading, and then for a request which Sassoon must have made right about the time that Graves departed for France. Here is Hardy’s reply:
Max Gate, Dorchester. February 4, 1917
Dear Mr Sassoon:
I am pleased that you should care to inscribe your coming book of poems to me, which of course you have my permission to do—if you think it worth while!
Many thanks for enclosing the proof of the little one about Corbie Ridge (I don’t know where that is.)
I hope the weather will be milder before you go back to France, & that you may have good luck over there.
There is something amusingly fussy about Hardy’s parenthetical remark. Well, of course he doesn’t know where Corbie Ridge is, and while a century on he might peck it into the search bar one key at a time and then be instantaneously better informed (and be able to affect knowingness about all the place-names of the Western Front in his reply) he’s not about to hustle down to the library and page through back issues just to discover what part of the line Sassoon is referring to.
But let that be. What about the poem, and the gesture of dedication? Sassoon has not been dwelling on Hardy, lately, but he is certainly more than just a conveniently famous family friend. He’s a great poet… and yet his only comment is to note his ignorance about Corbie Ridge? No kind words on the poem itself? Is there evidence of the craftsman’s promise, here?
But Hardy says nothing encouraging. And it was a well-chosen poem, too. Neither one of Sassoon’s older-fashioned pretty laments, nor one of his sharp new satires, Sassoon had sent a most Hardy-like poem. It is Sassoon-like as well, with the mud and the long retrospect, but is it too obviously an apprentice Satire of Circumstance?
Two Hundred Years After
Trudging by Corbie Ridge one winter’s night,
(Unless old hearsay memories tricked his sight)
Along the pallid edge of the quiet sky
He watched a nosing lorry grinding on,
And straggling files of men; when these were gone,
A double limber and six mules went by,
Hauling the rations up through ruts and mud
To trench-lines digged two hundred years ago.
Then darkness hid them with a rainy scud,
And soon he saw the village lights below.
But when he’d told his tale, an old man said
That he’d seen soldiers pass along that hill;
‘Poor silent things, they were the English dead
Who came to fight in France and got their fill.’
Read in this fashion, in this context, it’s a fair bet that Hardy saw the poem and worried that he might have a fawning imitator on his hands. Sassoon is promising–his verse is always smooth. But this scene, first imagined in June–the setting out on the cold downs, the trudging mules and hunched men and fatalistic rain (never mind the lorry!)–and then the reveal, in the final quatrain, that they are ghosts, futile ghosts, and that their war will never end–this scene could be titled “A Soldier’s Post-Script to Mr. Thomas Hardy’s Satires of Circumstance.” So Hardy, I think, is wary.
But how could we not be pleased? We must be. It is only a slight bit of imaginative hyperbole (two hundred years?!?!) that keeps this poem from being something like a joint standard-bearer (a tent-pole? an optio? the column at the other end of the pediment?) for A Century Back. Our namesake poem is Hardy’s At Lulworth Cove a Century Back, with its poets and ghosts and time-travel… if Sassoon had opted for the relatively restrained future-contemplation of a single century, then the parallel would be irresistible.
As things stand, in Dorset and Litherland, young Sassoon is on probation, I think–the twain are in mutual regard, but not convergence. And yet Sassoon’s forthcoming book is cleared to carry a dedication to the greatest living angry-fatalist poet…
We take one more step back down the chain of connection, now, to another even younger poet who is yet to converge with any of our other writers. But Wilfred Owen is making great strides nonetheless. In today’s letter to his mother winter hardships are the seeds of a poem, and percolating thoughts of that poem lead Owen closer toward a major statement against the war.
Sunday, 4 February 1917 [Advanced Horse Transport Depot]
My own dear Mother,
…since my last letter I have had another, strong dose of the advanced Front Line.
To begin with, I have come out quite unhurt, except for a touch of dysentery, which is now passed, and a severe cold and cough which keep me in bed today.
I have no mind to describe all the horrors of this last Tour. But it was almost wusser than the first, because in this place my Platoon had no Dug-Outs, but had to lie in the snow under the deadly wind. By day it was impossible to stand up or even crawl about because we were behind only a little ridge screening us from the Bosches periscope.
The bit of baby talk–“wusser” for “worse”–is discordant now where it wouldn’t have been a few weeks ago. Wilfred continues to write home to mum, and to complain, but this letter includes deep misery and death, and he is already mulling over the meaning of it all.
We had 5 Tommy’s cookers between the Platoon, but they did not suffice to melt the ice in the water-cans. So we suffered cruelly from thirst.
The marvel is that we did not all die of cold. As a matter of fact, only one of my party actually froze to death before he could be got back but I am not able to tell how many have ended in hospital. I had no real casualties from shelling, though for 10 minutes every hour, whizz-bangs fell a few yards short of us. Showers of soil rained on us, but no fragments of shell could find us.
Owen now waxes almost mystical:
I had lost my gloves in a dug-out, but I found 1 mitten on the Field; I had my Trench Coat (without lining but with a Jerkin, underneath.) My feet ached until they could ache no more, and so they temporarily died. I was kept warm by the ardour of Life within me. I forgot hunger in the hunger for Life. The intensity of your Love reached me and kept me living. I thought of you and Mary without a break all the time. I cannot say I felt any fear. We were all half-crazed by the buffetting of the High Explosives, I think the most unpleasant reflection that weighed on me was the impossibility of getting back any wounded, a total impossibility all day, and frightfully difficult by night.
We were marooned on a frozen desert.
There is not a sign of life on the horizon and a thousand signs of death. Not a blade of grass, not an insect; once or twice a day the shadow of big hawk, scenting carrion.
This is quite dramatic. Not that the misery and fear of holding such a line in such weather doesn’t merit such drama… it just seems as if he is straining for effect. It will feel very different, however, in verse. Owen may have begun working on the poem that would come to be “Exposure” within a day or two of today, a century back.
Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . .
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . .
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . .
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
But nothing happens.
The poem, the first in which Owen sets out to portray something of the range of trench experience in verse, will also be the first in which he directly addresses, in apostrophe, his swift disillusionment:
Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
What are we doing here?
The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow . . .
We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey,
But nothing happens.
Needless to say, perhaps, but this is more than just a dawn recorded. Dawn is for poets–full of hope, full of meaning, pregnant with larks straining at the muse’s leash, ready to leap to the sky. “But nothing happens.”
Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew,
We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,
But nothing happens.
Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces—
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
—Is it that we are dying?
Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed,—
We turn back to our dying.
Well, so, there is melodrama, too, with that blackbird nattering out any hope. There is something not quite right here, a serious problem of tone. He affects to speak for all of his men–“we… we… our… our…”–but if he is to succeed in that, he will need a different sort of voice. Not the gruff or cheerful or stoic Bairnsfathery voice, but something much farther away from lyrical narcissism. This poem begins to bring some notes of wartime experience over into literature, but the voice is still innocent, if only because it is so self-regarding. Unconsciously, perhaps, we read “I” for all this “we.”
I don’t understand the force of the religious appeal in the penultimate stanza, but the last paragraph, despite the poem’s flaws, has real emotional power. As we will see, when we return to the letter, his sense of outrage–of a distaste or disgust, of a horror that not only merits but demands action–has outpaced his style.
Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
For love of God seems dying.
Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands, and puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
But nothing happens.
Although its roots are in this last frigid tour, the poem itself is in the near future. Today, the rest of the letter remains, and it contains a common piece of irony: if a terrible experience is to lead to a poem, then there must also be a respite from terrible experience in which the inspiration can actually be written.
By degrees, day by day, we worked back through the reserve & support lines to the crazy village where the Battalion takes breath…
At last I got to the village, & found all your dear precious letters, and the parcel of good and precious things. The Lamp is perfect your Helmet is perfect, everything was perfect.
But he hasn’t just survived a tour in the trenches–he has won an unexpected reprieve.
Then I had the heavenly-dictated order to proceed on a Transport Course. Me in Transports? Aren’t you? When I departed, the gloom among the rest of the Subs, and even among Captains, was a darkness that could be felt. They can’t understand my luck…
The Course should last 1 month!!
Fondest love to all, & thanks for all their letters.
Your own Wilfred x
So Owen will be safe, now, for some time, in Abbeville.
We’ll close with a telling little post-script. Wilfred has been almost rapturous in writing to his mother; but it would be different, wouldn’t it, with his stern and doubting father?
P.S. I don’t at all deserve the spirited approbation which Father gives me. Though I confess I like to have his kind letters immensely. I shall read them less shamefacedly in dug-outs and trenches, than I do here in this pleasant peaceful town.
And the post-script goes on and on, leading, perhaps, to the mood in which the poem will begin.
Quite 10 years ago I made a study of this town & Cathedral, in the Treasury. It is all familiar now!
…I suppose I can endure cold, and fatigue, and the face-to-face death, as well as another; but extra for me there is the universal pervasion of Ugliness. Hideous landscapes, vile noises, foul language and nothing but foul, even from one’s own mouth (for all are devil ridden), everything unnatural, broken, blasted; the distortion of the dead, whose unburiable bodies sit outside the dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable sights on earth. In poetry we call them the most glorious. But to sit with them all day, all night . . . and a week later to come back and find them still sitting there, in motionless groups, THAT is what saps the ‘soldierly spirit’ . . .