The Master of Belhaven Has Great Fun; Rudyard Kipling Tries Out a Jest; Isaac Rosenberg in the Gloomiest Depths

We have a jarring triple contrast for today, a century back–a diary entry and two letters, each in a very different mood and aspect.

We begin, wrong-footedly, with the comic relief. The Master of Belhaven is nothing if not a sportsman. But those Germans, on the other hand, they really do put up a poor show…

I walked over to Welch’s detached section with him in the afternoon. He lent me a gun and we put up quite a lot of partridges. The birds are very wild now, and we did not get any. However, it was great fun. The Hun, who is no sportsman, amused himself by putting out shrapnel not far off, but they were too high to be at all dangerous.[1]

 

Then it’s an abrupt and painful transition from a colonel with the leisure to shoot (at) partridges on a lark–and the good breeding to forgive the birds of the battle zone their wildness–to a private with very much less in the way of time and sport and fun. Isaac Rosenberg, is less interested in the birds of No Man’s Land than most of our poets are–but he’s a dab hand with the rats.

Dear Mr Bottomley

I do not know when I begin a letter whether to plunge right to the depths into the gloomiest of Byronic misanthropy (as indeed, my inclination pushes me to,) or be nice and placid & acquiescent about things. I know if I didn’t explain myself properly Id only appear weak & stupid, & as the situation does not give me the chance to explain myself, it must be left unexplained just yet, at least…

I have been transfered… my own Batt is broken up & what was left of them mixed with other Battalions… Poetry has gone right out of me I get no chance to even think of it. My ‘Unicorn’ is dead, & it will need a powerful Messiah to breathe life into its nostrils. I could more easily draw than write but the weather is too cold for that, if I did get the time… Thank you for what you say about my ‘Kolue’ speech. If the war does not damage me completely Ill beat that yet.

Yours sincerely,

Isaac Rosenberg[2]8.

These sorts of bulletins–“it’s miserable, but let us hold onto hope”–are the best Rosenberg has been able to manage, of late. But if poetry really has been driven right out of him then he is, at least, still holding on to the last fragments he was able to produce before his transfer… we shall see them soon.

 

Speaking of production, here’s a strange one. Rudyard Kipling and several cronies have recently decided to begin the distinctly sui generis (and extremely English) project of composing a sham fifth book of Horatian odes. In this letter to C. R. L. Fletcher, then, we might expect to find Kipling in his mode of master yarn-spinner–and we do. He is excited by the game, there is a burst of creativity couched in hale-fellow encouragements… but it’s not all fun and games.

Bateman’s, Burwash, Sussex

Feb. 17.1918.

Dear Fletcher

…I think highly of any good “fake” and the idea of the original M.S.–of a decent rich brown tinct–is very fine indeed. Thus are Immortal Works built up! ‘Only hope we’ll have some paper left after the war! Facsimiles cost like sin: but I foresee an edition de luxe in the years to come!

And I think too the notion of fresh hands in the game is fun. We oughtn’t to keep the fun to ourselves…

All good luck be with you.

Ever

RK.

This selection of the letter more or less captures the tone. He is writing, again, about the project of composing odes in the style of Horace and rendering them in Latin. And that’s not all. He is thinking, too, about that collection of short ancient verses known to classicists (and well-educated 19th century Englishmen more generally) as the Greek Anthology. The anthology is rich in epitaphs, and Kipling has been mulling these over. There is a post-script–and it doesn’t sound like a joke.

P.S. How does this go into Greek. It’s out of the sepulchral unchristian epigrams of the missing parts of the Anthology:

On an R. A. Subaltern

Death fell upon my Son from out of the skies while
he was laughing, they tell me, at some jest. Would
I had known what it was. It would serve me through
the years when I shall not laugh.

The grammar is mixed I think.[3]

The striking thing is that this epigram–which Kipling proposes, perhaps jokingly, to render into Greek–is not at all lighthearted. It’s a suitably stoic ancient-style epigram, one that would fit well, perhaps, with what the mourners on the hither side of the generational gulf might want their public sentiments about their “fallen” sons to sound like. Which is why this epigram, published later in revised form, is often presented as if it is written by Kipling about his boy Jack. And, of course, how could his only son be entirely absent from his mind? But there is no mention of Jack, here–instead it is the classical heritage, on the one hand, and the Royal Artillery (Jack Kipling was an infantry officer) on the other…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 457.
  2. Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head, 117-
  3. Letters, IV, 483-4.

Rowland Feilding and the Admonitory Death of Private Mayne; A Mining Disaster in Staffordshire; Siegfried Sassoon Suspicious in Peace of Mind, C.E. Montague Melancholy at Football; Rudyard Kipling Hatches an Ode-iferous Plot

This is one of those days of discombobulated experience–but it’s hard not to feel that there is some link between all these different disasters, impression, and feelings. The war is everywhere…

Rowland Feilding‘s thoughts are dwelling on the repulse of a German raid by one of his Lewis gunners, a swift and savage burst of violence on a generally quiet front. When the action occurred, two days ago, Feilding was bracketed, here, by protesting young officers. He would never himself step away from the narrow passage of duty and make a public protest… and yet, in his letter to his wife of today, a century back, he makes it clear how much he–a middle-aged battalion commander with Regular army experience–loathes the way the higher-ups (be they no higher than Division, a mere two steps up the ladder, since he commands his own battalion) are disconnected from the experience of the soldiers. Once more the scarlet tabs of the staff officer begin to seem like a bright badge of moral cowardice…

January 12, 1918. Fillers Faucon

The incident of the morning before last had so filled me with pride of the battalion that I confess I have been aghast at receiving—instead of any acknowledgment of the successful and heroic repulse of the German raiders by Private Mayne and his companion—the following memorandum, which has been circulated in the Division.

I quote from memory:

“Another instance has occurred of an enemy patrol reaching within bombing distance of our line. This must not occur again. Our patrols must meet the enemy patrols boldly in Noman’s Land,” etc., etc., etc.

How simple and how grand it sounds! I think I can see the writer, with his scarlet tabs, seated in his nice office 7 or 8 miles behind the line, penning this pompous admonition.

So Private Mayne, it seems, will go unrecognized and unrewarded–In the meantime he has died, and I can only
say, “God rest his soul”![1]

There is a note that Private Mayne–Private Joseph Mayne, of Ardcumber, Cookstown, Co. Tyrone, son of James and Mary–was mentioned posthumously in despatches. This, short of the V.C., was the most recognition a dead soldier could hope for (strange phrase, that). And a private–an Irish private–killed in a small action, on the defensive was never going to receive any major reward, even though his heroic gallantry in manning his gun after his body had been mutilated by German grenades surely saved the lives of several of his comrades.

 

And at the Podmore Hill Colliery, in Staffordshire, today, a century back, an accumulation of coal dust and “firedamp”–methane–exploded, ripping through coal seams worked by several hundred men. Rescue efforts were unavailing and the final toll will prove to be 156 miners–men and boys. This was the third deadly explosion in the mine, and the second in three years. Wilfred Owen will read of the disaster, naturally, and he will choose to write about it as well, unable not to conflate the sudden death of so many by fire and gas (and some of them very young) with the horrors of the war itself. And, by the time Miners is complete, it will be one of his most wide-open poems, in terms of historical experience and deliberate reaching toward the universal… the miners are seen not only as soldiers, but as in some sense linked even with the ancient life whose remains they are harvesting at such peril so far below the ground, and with the years to come, which they will not see.

 

News of this disaster–but what are 156 poor men against the daily toll of the war?–will spread slowly, and so we see several of our writers merely going about their business.

For Siegfried Sassoon, this business now is a numb and pleasant–suspiciously numb and pleasant–idyll. It is almost as if he is being visited by a premonition of the mining disaster, in all its frank horror and heavy symbolic weight.

January 12

Peace of mind; freedom from all care; the jollity of health and good companions. What more can one ask for? But it is a drugged peace, that will not think, dares not think. I am home again in the ranks of youth–the company of death. The barrack clock strikes eleven on a frosty night. ‘Another night; another day’.[2]

 

C.E. Montague–a man of something near to an opposite temperament from Sassoon’s–is feeling much the same way:

On January 12, Montague was back at Rollencourt. There was a pause in operations, and he played ‘a good game of football’; but was ‘intensely melancholy, these days’, over the public situation. ‘Now’, he says, ‘is the time to learn and practise fortitude, but it is hard.’[3]

 

But life persists, and pastimes persist. Montague plays football, Sassoon will go hunting when he can, and Rudyard Kipling–who, whenever he makes a brief appearance in a Great War history, is generally depicted as utterly destroyed by the death of his son–continues to bear up as best he can. He is at work–naturally–on a collaborative project involving Horace. Not to translate him, study him, or make the great Roman poet somehow applicable to Britain’s war effort, but rather to concoct a spurious, tongue-in-cheek Fifth Book of Odes. (Horace wrote four.) In Latin. Is there satirical intent? Sure. Is it, or was it ever, broadly accessible? Perhaps a bit more back then, but, really… not so much.

Bateman’s
Burwash
Sussex
Jan 12.1918

Dear Fletcher:

I am, as you know, no scholar when it comes to the Latin but I think it’s lovely… I think this is going to be glorious larks!

…I’ve got a new Fifth Booker whereof Hankinson Ma. is preparing the translation. It came out in the Times ever so long ago under the title The Pro-Consuls but I perceive now that Horace wrote it. Rather a big effort for him
and on a higher plane than usual – unless he’d been deliberately flattering some friend in the Government. I’ll send it along.

Ever yours

Rudyard Kipling[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 246-8.
  2. Diaries, 203.
  3. Elton, C.E. Montague, 200.
  4. Letters, IV, 479-80.

Richard Aldington’s New Directions; Carroll Carstairs’ Improbable Password

Richard Aldington has been home on leave, and busy–not so much with his new officer’s identity as with the early stages of an extramarital affair with Dorothy Yorke, a young member of the circle now centered on D.H. Lawrence and H.D., Aldington’s wife. Aldington is writing quite a bit, as well, poems which reflect not only his profound self regard and far shallower talent but also the doubly overheated atmosphere of a soldier home on leave and a man in the grips of a new sexual passion. Today, a century back, he sent some of the poems–not war poems, and not particularly modernist, but quite sexually explicit–to his American patroness and publisher, Amy Lowell. And then there is the matter of last year’s war poems, a few of which we have looked at here…

2 January 1918
44 Mecklenburgh Square,
London, England.

My dear Amy,

Hilda sent me on your charming letter this morning and I was most happy to get it. We had your cheery cable on Christmas day—I was at home—and were delighted that you had thought of us. After I passed my examinations I had nearly a month’s leave. It was a wonderful time, so much was compressed into those few weeks. It was marvellous after those other days.

I have my commission now and am expecting to be back in the trenches in a month or six weeks. So probably I’ll be gone before I can hear from you again. I will try and send you just a word before I go. Unhappily, I feel I mustn’t send you any details about my military life—the rules are very stringent and I don’t want to say anything I shouldn’t…

I’m afraid that’s all I can tell you—after the war I’ll spin you more soldier’s yarns than you’ll care to hear!

I am thinking of collecting all my war poems—I have about 60 or 70—into a book. Do you think the U.S.A. would care for them? They are not popular—I mean they are bitter, anguish-stricken, realistic, not like Brooke or Noyes or anybody like that. They are stern truth, and I have hesitated about publishing them…

There is a lot of gamesmanship here. New officers may be more inclined to follow the letter of the law, but his zealous secrecy about not much at all (he’s not even in France) should set Lowell’s eyes rolling, and his aw-shucks “hesitations” as well.

Now for the name-dropping:

I am translating Anacreon in camp—I find I can’t do really good work in a camp, so I am doing these light Greek things, just to keep the “feel” of literature. Great poetry—Shelley and Euripides and Dante—moves me so terribly that I cannot bear it. I feel choked. For this reason I had to give up those burning passionate poems of Meleager. They left me unnerved & unstrung. I am reading a little Dante, but only a very, very little each day—it exhausts me with emotion. He understands so wonderfully the piercing passion of love—the mystic exaltation which is prolonged beyond the contact of the flesh. Do you remember the two cantos towards the end of the Purgatorio where he  meets Bia after those years of absence and where Virgil leaves him? It seems to me to put most modern poetry utterly out of count. It is like Plato’s Symposium, but more tortured, more like ourselves in its bitterness & intensity.

Aldington has been very busy, and much of this–the poems as well as the translations–will soon be published. But his poems lately have been very unlike his earlier ones, at once besotted hand-wavingly dramatic in a manner not quite befitting the cerebral Modernism favored by Lowell. A single stanza of a poem written this month, a century back, should give the rough idea:

Go your ways, you women, pass and forget us,
We are sick of blood, of the taste and sight of it;
Go now to those who bleed not and to the old men,
They will give you beautiful love in answer!
But we, we are alone, we are desolate,
Thinning the blood of our brothers with weeping,
Crying for our brothers, the men we fought with,
Crying out, mourning them, alone with our dead ones;
Praying that our eyes may be blinded
Lest we go mad in a world of scarlet,
Dripping, oozing from the veins of our brothers.

Faced with this, as well as poems clearly about Aldington’s affair with Yorke, Lowell will take the unusual step of writing to H.D. (i.e. Aldington’s wife Hilda Doolittle) to ask her advice…

 

And after all that, here is a very strange little anecdote from Carrol Carstairs

I was left behind until the new unit had taken over the billets and found them “all correct.”

It was dark when I left for Arras. Nothing moved on the road. I had to walk—five or six or seven miles? A frequent look over my shoulder as I stumbled on revealed nothing. I moved on automatically, breathing hard and painfully. I would scarcely know when I had reached Arras. There wouldn’t be many lights. Interminable! How could anything take so long. What? Was I asleep? Where am I? Oh, yes, Arras. I must get to Arras. God, but I feel groggy.

Outlying houses, like stragglers, appeared in the gloom, and then I was in Arras itself, walking the streets of a town empty of life but for a private soldier or two. It stood only partially destroyed, but the Hotel de Ville with its fine Gothic façade and the cathedral were among the ruins. I don’t know why I thought of this as I sought Battalion Headquarters. The word periwinkle also suddenly occurred without my associating the name with its meaning.

“Periwinkle!” I said out loud. “Periwinkle!” I announced as I entered the officers’ mess.

“Periwinkle?” questioned Alec Agar-Robartes.

“Well, possibly not,” I replied. . . .[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A Generation Missing, 148-9. According to a note on page 235, this was tonight/tomorrow, a century back.

Patrick Shaw Stewart Forgoes the S.O.S.

The Christmas quiet of the Western Front was broken, today, a century back, at dawn, by a minor German offensive near Cambrai–but no offensive is minor to the men under the barrage.

Patrick Shaw Stewart, commanding the Hood Battalion, had a decision to make: was this just a covering barrage for a raid, or was there an actual attack underway which might threaten the integrity of his position? He’s a new commander–a relatively inexperienced temporary commander–and to nervously call for support when it was not needed would not look well… so Shaw Stewart refused to send up the S.O.S. signal, even though he was urged to do so by the artillery liaison officer who was with him. This decision was “exceptionally gallant” as well as both correct and mistaken: the barrage was not, in fact, the immediate harbinger of a surprise attack–but the attack did come an hour later, and was beaten back.

But Shaw Stewart did not live to see it. The following account, given at one remove by an officer who interviewed the liaison officer who was with Shaw Stewart when he died, is more graphic than most. Perhaps because it passed between an officer and a male friend–Ronald Knox, who will compile the memorial volume of Shaw Stewart’s letters–rather than a wife or mother who would have been presumed to need gentle solace more than truth. And yet it ends with the familiar mercy of an “instantaneous” death.

He was hit by shrapnel, the lobe of his ear was cut off and his face spattered so that the blood ran down from his forehead and blinded him for a bit. The gunner tried to make him go back to Battalion H.Q. to be dressed, but he refused, and insisted on completing his round. Very soon afterwards, a shell burst on the parapet, and a fragment hit him upwards through the mouth and killed him instantaneously. This gunner, who was in the ranks of the R.F.A. before the war, and as liaison officer with the infantry can speak with sure experience, says that he has never seen a battalion better organised. He was intensely struck with Patrick’s capacity; there was no detail to do with the men’s comfort to which he did not give the closest personal attention. And he spoke with the greatest admiration of his fearless personal courage. He mentioned all this in the course of ordinary conversation, without being aware that I knew him at all well.

His battalion fought well; they seem to have been a fine lot, with a splendid fighting spirit. I thought this might interest you. It was very pleasant to hear, for, whatever the grief may be at home, a death like this is so undoubtedly worth while.[1]

Knox does not comment on this assumption. Shaw Stewart, the brilliant, unhappy “Edwardian meteor” (who will eventually receive a biography by that title) dies too late to be in tune with the tragic march of 1915 and 1916. His parents are dead and there are no writers or famous socialite-diarists in the family–he had won his position and his friends at Eton and Balliol largely through effort and academic brilliance. And he has no wife or great love all his own to mourn him. He loved Diana Manners, but in vain; and although he had the love of Lady Desborough, he was neither lover nor son to her but something (uncomfortably, at times) in-between.

Patrick Shaw Stewart in his Student Days

I can’t do justice to Shaw Stewart, here, but it’s certainly not justice to have him end up a brainy also-ran, his death stuck in at the end of the year, months away from any notable battle. He didn’t get the girl, he didn’t rise to military eminence like his friend Freyberg or live to see a brilliant career like Knox (who took up the job of memorializing Shaw Stewart and publishing his letters, but did not write much of him in his own voice); nor did he die a timely and “meaningful” (in the sense of “handily contextualizable”) death or leave pretty poems (and photos to match) like Brooke.

He was a brilliant classicist, “perhaps the finest Homerist to fight at Gallipoli,” and an extremely clever writer (his list of one hundred and one erotic suggestions for Diana Manners, which lapses quickly into trilingual-quotation-from-memory is one of history’s most profligate expenditures of learning on unsuccessful wooing). But he wasn’t really a poet.

Shaw Stewart did, however, write poetry–or, at least, one notable poem. It is most worthy of sustained attention as an exercise in classical reception and application–which it gets from Elizabeth Vandiver, who borrows a line of his for the title of her excellent book[2]–but his major contribution to the common anthology of the war is, like that of several other poets dying young, a poem in which a the poet faces his death and asks for divine–or, in this case, heroic–aid.

Shaw Stewart, only twenty-nine, is, nevertheless, belated. And so too is his inescapable poem. He probably wrote it in 1915, in Gallipoli–certainly it refers to the strange experience of being a Homer-steeped classicist fighting so near to Troy. But no one read it then. In the end, Shaw Stewart’s formidable substance is overshadowed once more by context: like Charles Sorley’s masterpiece, this poem was found with its author’s possessions after his death. And either paper was scarce when inspiration struck or, more likely, Shaw Stewart had a strong feeling about where his poem might belong: “I Saw a Man This Morning” was written on the flyleaf of his copy of that most essential non-classical element of any poetical young officer’s literary kit–his copy of Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.
 

I saw a man this morning
     Who did not wish to die
I ask, and cannot answer,
     If otherwise wish I.

 

Fair broke the day this morning
     Against the Dardanelles;
The breeze blew soft, the morn’s cheeks
     Were cold as cold sea-shells.

 

But other shells are waiting
     Across the Aegean sea,
Shrapnel and high explosive,
     Shells and hells for me.

 

O hell of ships and cities,
     Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
     Why must I follow thee?

 

Achilles came to Troyland
     And I to Chersonese:
He turned from wrath to battle,
     And I from three days’ peace.

 

Was it so hard, Achilles,
     So very hard to die?
Thou knewest and I know not—
     So much the happier I.

 

I will go back this morning
     From Imbros over the sea;
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
     Flame-capped, and shout for me.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 204-5.
  2. See Stand in the Trench, Achilles, esp. pp. 263-77.

What a Night it is for Olaf Stapledon; Thomas Hardy Mourns the Son of Stourhead

Of all the young men born to a privileged English country background, with their birthright of rolling landscaped gardens and Latin tutors, Captain Harry Hoare lived the combination of country house and classical heritage more intensely than the rest–he came from Stourhead, the Wiltshire estate famed for its huge, carefully allusive garden dotted with “classical” temples seen along dramatic vistas.

Stourhead: Pantheon seen from across lake, with unidentified American children in foreground, routed by ducks

Stourhead: Pantheon, seen from Temple of Flora, with unidentified American child in foreground

The Hoare family had fallen on hard times (relatively speaking) in the later 19th century, and the estate was shuttered for years, until it passed from a childless cousin to Harry’s father. The family soon moved to Stourhead, renovating it slowly while they lived in a cottage on the grounds. There were setbacks, including a devastating fire in 1902, but the family continued to repair the estate and its grounds. During the first decade of the 20th century, Lady Hoare became friendly with Thomas Hardy and his wife Emma (and then, in turn, with his second wife Florence), who lived only 35 miles off.

Hardy, though in his novels so often a champion of the disregarded poor, was friendly with many aristocrats, and could hardly resist this family of down-to-earth landowners and their struggle to preserve the past, especially its dramatic temples and the (Two on a) tower folly which was (and remains) the high point, so to speak, of a longer walk on the estate.

Stourhead was still being rebuilt when the war broke out and Harry, the only son, volunteered, eventually becoming a captain in the Devonshire Yeomanry (a territorial cavalry unit that could hardly have had a more Hardy-like name, short of Wessex Light Horse).

 

On November 13th, Harry Hoare was wounded at Mughar Ridge in Palestine. He died at Alexandria on December 20th.

 

Max Gate, Dorchester, December 26, 1917

My dear Sir Henry & Lady Hoare:

Though one should be prepared for anything in these days it never struck me what I was going to read when I opened your letter.

It is no use to offer consolation. And not even Time may be able to give that—I mean real consolation. Once a wound, always a scar left, it seems to me. Though Time can & does enlarge our vision to perceive that the one who has gone has the best of it—& that we who are left are made to look rather poor creatures by comparison with the one who has got safely to the other side—has achieved Death triumphantly & can say:

“Nor steel nor poison—foreign levy—nothing
Can touch me further”.[1]

You may remember what was said by Ld Clarendon in his History of the Rebellion, on the death of Ld Falkland in the Battle of Newbury:

“If there were no other brand upon this odious & accursed War than that single loss, it must be most infamous & execrable to all posterity.”[2]

I write the above in great haste, to answer your letter quickly. Florence has been crying over her remembrance of climbing the tower with Harry. It is a satisfaction, if one may say so, to feel now that we did go to see you when you were all at home together. With deepest sympathy for both

Yours always sincerely

Thomas Hardy[3]

 

It’s hard to follow a letter of condolence from one of the great writers of England, reduced to gruff kindness, quotation and soft, heartfelt cliché. But it is pleasing, in some strange, sad sense–in aesthetic if not philosophical terms–to have Olaf Stapledon here as a counterbalancing writer. After Hardy’s taut, dutiful letter, in which he suppresses the voice of the grim old man who loves to stake out the pain of the indifferent universe’s cruel ironies and instead offers whatever meager gifts convention has to give, Olaf Stapledon regards the immensity of the universe (both literally and figuratively) with utterly different eyes. Stapledon is watching the skies with hope, standing in a different field and a different time of life, his searching spirit suffused by joy even in difficult circumstances, looking at boundless possibility instead of promise cut off.  And, of course, he’s right, too.

26 December 1917

The moon is brilliant, and the earth is a snowy brilliance under the moon. Jupiter, who was last night beside the moon, is now left a little way behind. Venus has just sunk ruddy in the West, after being for a long while a dazzling white splendour in the sky. I have just come in from a walk with our Professor [Lewis Richardson], and he has led my staggering mind through mazes and mysteries of the truth about atoms and electrons and about that most elusive of Cod’s creatures, the ether. And all the while we were creeping across a wide white valley and up a pine clad ridge, and everywhere the snow crystals sparkled under our feet, flashing and vanishing mysteriously like our own fleeting inklings of the truth about electrons. The snow was very dry and powdery under foot, and beneath that soft white blanket was the bumpy frozen mud. The pine trees stood in black ranks watching us from the hill crest, and the faintest of faint breezes whispered among them as we drew near. The old Prof (he is only about thirty-five, and active, but of a senior cast of mind) won’t walk fast, and I was very cold in spite of my sheepskin coat; but after a while I grew so absorbed in his talk that I forgot even my frozen ears. (I had been wishing I had put on my woollen helmet.) We crossed the ridge through a narrow cleft and laid bare a whole new land, white as the last, and bleaker. And over the new skyline lay our old haunts and the lines. Sound of very distant gunfire muttered to us. Three trudging figures slowly drew near, three “poilus” carrying their kits and rifles. As they passed, one of them greeted us in our own tongue, for he had heard us talking. What a night it is. . . .[4]

Atoms, electrons, “ether,” and the stars and planets will all figure into Olaf’s vision of the cosmos, stuff so sweeping that it will make epics seem to pass by like bubble-gum songs–and yet, yes, without forgetting the human scale of the one man killed to little purpose, or the three soldiers trudging through the snowy landscape…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The quotation is from Macbeth.
  2. I'll quote the editor of Hardy's letters: "TH's quotation is accurate apart from the (deliberate) omission of 'Civil' before War."
  3. The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 235.
  4. Talking Across the World, 264-5.

Olaf Stapledon Need Not Worry About Parting; Robert Graves Has a More Pleasant Walk in the Snow; Cynthia Asquith and Bernard Freyberg Clash… Over Siegfried Sassoon’s Hero; The Loves and Letters of Patrick Shaw Stewart

In a few moments it will be back to the Souls/Coterie and their tangle of letters and affairs, but we’ll begin today, a century back with a lonelier–and purer–soul. Olaf Stapledon, still home, still on leave, writes again to Agnes Miller, in Australia, and he takes yet another small step toward an uncharacteristic despair.

Sunday night, the last night of leave. I go early tomorrow. This evening Mother played some Rubinstein on the piano and part of it was a “melody” that you used to play. It brought back ancient days. Father and I had such a wet walk this morning. Thurstastone was all one driving blizzard.— But what’s the use of writing you a sort of schoolboy diary? The last night of leave is a poor night. It’s bad enough for oneself but it’s worse for one’s people; and their sorrow makes one grieve far more. It’s good to talk to you tonight, for I am not on the point of leaving you—alas, partings need not worry us, for we have not yet our meeting. You are always as near as ever, and as far.[1]

That rather sets the tone, doesn’t it? Despair and sorrow and high romance–and, that, of course is the use of writing such a diary.

 

Robert Graves, however, is more fortunate: his beloved is near at hand. His biographer notes yet another visit to Nancy Nicholson–and confirms that the Merseyside weather had reached London by evening.

On Sunday, after an early lunch, he went into town again, and did not arrive back in Wimbledon until three in the morning, after walking the last last of the journey, all the way from Putney, in a driving blizzard.[2]

 

Actually, it seems that it was snowing in London throughout the day. Last night, a century back, Cynthia Asquith locked her bedroom door after (somehow!) using “purple passages” of Shakespeare to hold off the advances of Bernard Freyberg. Today the two resumed their contest of wills in a proxy battle over–wait for it!–the poetry of a certain young writer absent from–though present in verse at–a recent soirée.

Sunday, 16th December

Slept badly after agitating evening and woke to swirling snowstorm. Mary resurrected and joined us after breakfast. Freyberg inveighed against the Georgian Poets and reproached me for holding a brief for Siegfried Sassoon. I maintained that, having fully demonstrated his personal physical courage, he had earned the right to exhibit moral courage as a pacifist without laying himself open to the charge of cloaking physical cowardice under the claim of moral courage. Freyberg is very uncompromising in his condemnation and, with some justice, says it is offensive to come back and say, ‘I can’t lead men to their death any more’—it implies a monopoly of virtue, as if other officers liked doing it because they acquiesced in their duty.

Yes, “some justice”–which is what Rivers led Sassoon to see, although–and this is an important distinction–with an emphasis more on the position of the men-to-be-led-to-their-deaths than on the unfairly maligned virtue of the other officers…

But Freyberg, an Argonaut, a 1914 volunteer, a V.C., and a young brigadier, is too canny, at least, to bring only a medal to a poetry fight. He has read some of Sassoon, and he has a practical objection:

He thought the poem called ‘The Hero’ caddish, as it might destroy every mother’s faith in the report of her son’s death. Certainly Siegfried Sassoon breaks the conspiracy of silence, but sometimes I strongly feel that those at home should be made to realise the full horror, even to the incidental ugliness, as much as possible.[3]

A strange “but” in that last sentence–but it is fascinating, of course, to find a woman at home taking the side of the poets’ realism/horror while the eminent fighting soldier stands up for the non-caddishness of comforting lies. Asquith’s declaration here is very much like the intense enthusiasm of later readers of Great War Poetry: not only does she hold a brief for Sassoon, but it’s essentially the same brief that has become canonical. She would deny the experiential gulf–or, rather, she would recognize it and esteem those poets who try to write across it, and read eagerly in order to be one of the better sort of home-front people, who read in order to understand the true war…

There are several ironies here, including Sassoon’s habit (which should be apparent to Asquith if she has read his books) of expressing a casual nastiness towards both aristocratic patronesses and older women and Asquith’s scoring such high marks in our implied hierarchy of worthy readers/home front loved ones while her husband, unmentioned in these sections of her diary, is overseas, and she is embroiled in a pseudo-affair with a brother officer…

But back to the practical point: there’s a war on, and someone must write something to a million grieving mothers. Freyberg has probably written dozens–he has been both a company commander and a battalion commander. And is absolute truth always a virtue? Was he definitively wrong to strive to find some balance between truth and mercy?

Here is ‘The Hero,’ then, Sassoon’s no-holds-barred assault on the convention of the C.O.’s condolence letter. It is also, incidentally, one of the few poems to feature a female character and yet not treat her scorn–condescension, perhaps, but not contempt.

‘Jack fell as he’d have wished,’ the mother said,
And folded up the letter that she’d read.
‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. ‘We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed.

Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He’d told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.

He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.

 

There are other Argonauts abroad in London, and they have crossed paths all too quietly.

Missing, alas, from Diana Manners and Duff Cooper‘s diaries are accounts of Patrick Shaw Stewart‘s recent leave. The most probable explanation is simple awkwardness: Shaw Stewart has seen a great deal of the war, and Cooper is only recently commissioned, so there is a great gap of experience there, and experience is an incontestable, unexchangeable currency of honor… and yet it is the new subaltern Cooper who is on the verge of–to fall into the old sexist language, here–winning the prize they both coveted, and not the brigadier with the V.C.

Diana Manners avoided Shaw Stewart, seeing him only for a few meals, even when the two were thrown together (with Duff and a number of others) last weekend at a house party in Somerset. Shaw Stewart still enjoyed the party, describing a bag of fifty pheasants as “not a bad change from the winter campaign,” but, ignored by the woman he loved (and was still doggedly pursuing, by letter when not in person), he spent much of his time and energy on his more unconventional but equally intense relationship with “Ettie,” Lady Desborough, the light of the Souls, now fifty and the mother of Shaw Stewart’s dead friends Julian and Billy Grenfell.

Strange and intertwined as all these relationships are, it’s still remarkable to note that today, a century back[4] Shaw Stewart returned from leave to take over command of his battalion from Oc Asquith (the youngest of the three brothers, now promoted brigadier) after having left Manners (the intimate friend and best epistolary sparring partner of Raymond Asquith, the eldest of the three brothers) and Cooper behind, and then been seen to the train, a few days ago, by his friend and Naval Division colleague Bernard Freyberg. That’s right: Freyberg, who has been laying siege to the matrimonial loyalty of Cynthia Asquith, wife of the middle brother, Herbert, and who has let off all his guns to deter a nuisance foray in the form of a Siegfried Sassoon poem.

Shaw Stewart used that train journey to write to Lady Desborough, playfully refuting her suggestion that he had bought notepaper in order to write to “his girl friends–“even though he does fact continue to write to Diana Manners “almost daily.”

I did buy the notepaper, but it was to write to you to tell you how infinitely I adore you and how perfect and essential you have been to me this leave. What should I do without you? You are Julian and Billy, Edward and Charles to me, and then you are yourself.

Strange and effusive, but fitting, perhaps, for a letter between one of the great melodramatic late Victorians and an “Edwardian meteor.” And however overcooked we might find their social self-celebrations, however overheated their prose, there is no denying the fact that Lady Desborough, who has lost two of her three sons, and Shaw Stewart, who has lost the four friends he names (and many others), are united by harrowing and tremendous loss.

But, once more at the front, his letters–and loves–seem to have fallen into a more predictable course. Perhaps Diana was frustratingly cold when he was in England, but now, in the trenches, where it is bitterly cold in all too unmetaphorical sense, the old habit of reaching out to her, of telling his days to her, is still of great comfort: she is completely unobtainable, but the thoughts still warm him, perhaps. Shaw Stewart, ever the classicist, makes a nice tale of an ordinary, if severe, unpleasantness of winter duty:

Church Parade at 11 am… I thoughtfully issued an order that great-coats might be worn; then, proceeding through the icy blast to put on my own–the one you know too well–I found it caked with mud and the blood of my faithful uncomplaining horse. So, mindful of Hector’s rule that “it is impossible to make prayer to Zeus, lord of the clouds, all bespattered with mud and filth,”[5] I attended without, and nearly died of cold, besides having to sing to hymns without the band…

I inherited Oc’s half-shed and succeeded in putting on first, silk pyjamas, then flannel pyjamas, and then a fur lining, and then everything else on top, and in not waking more than twice in the night feeling cold…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 261.
  2. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 188-9.
  3. Diaries, 380-1.
  4. I think; the dating is not terribly clear. Oh for uniformly prim footnoting!
  5. Iliad VI, c. 263.
  6. Jebb, Patrick Shaw Stewart, An Edwardian Meteor, 236-8.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Hugh Quigley Signs Off; Wilfred Owen has a Chat with H.G. Wells; Thomas Hardy Despairs of Progress

Well, Hugh Quigley has burned bright and brief, here. I have to confess that, due to oversights and backlogs and such-like failures of the will, I had never read the book until it was almost too late–namely this August, well after he began writing, a century back.[1] So I could have made a bit more of Quigley, here, and gotten to know him through (in two senses) his writing. But perhaps not too much, or too well: his verbosity, his combination of Romantic idealism, frequent illusion, and chronologically torturous meditations on actual events was not a great fit for this project–they are more like sermons than letters. But it is a fascinating book, and I wish I knew more about him. In any case, it’s over. Today, a century back, Quigley wrote his valedictory from a hospital in Scotland (the location for literary war letters in 1917).

It’s hard to even summarize the many pages of philosophical musing, rhetorical posturing, and (yes, another trio of adjective-noun pairs! It’s infectious) proto-historical flag-planting that he managed to write, so we’ll make do with brief excerpts and long ellipses. It’s somewhat uncanny that he closes his reflections today, given what this date signifies to us–though it is of course the very last November 11th that will mean nothing to anyone then and there.

Glasgow, 11 November, 1917

Perhaps when the matter remains by me I might resume my ideas concerning the Passchendaele Ridge battle, not the historic, but the purely individual–something of the soul and nothing of the material. What can be the value of any thought expressed as a form of literature, even in embryo as it is in my letters, when it deals with mere ephemeral attributes, things, passing, even now past and gone to a limbo unregretted perhaps, vague monuments to perverted endeavour? I can still see those guns ranged along the Menin Road; their heads crowned with laurel leaves, which, on nearer approach, were bits of green paper strung on nets. A curious association, that of the laurel leaf: Ariosto and Tasso were crowned with it to express a love of serene, sun-flooded beauty; now we crown them to express our admiration of nature not beautiful, but strictly utilitarian…what lives?–is it the image or the gun?

True, the references to epic poets of the Italian Renaissance were not strictly necessary–although, as perhaps Quigley knows, Tasso used contemporary military knowledge when he wrote his epic, which was “based on historical events” (as we would say) and has a whole sub-plot involving siege warfare, artillery, and an enchanted wood… but never mind! Despite his elaborate style Quigley is getting to the heart of the question. Are we here for true facts recorded (i.e. the gun) or the varieties of human experience, as transmuted into literature?

But Quigley is not really interested in such pedestrian questions–he flies above the fray, so to speak, and looks down from a great height, too high for binaries such as history vs. literature or the horror of war vs. the rightness of the cause.

The sin of war is not surface; it goes to the very heart and centre of being, for the thought is ever poised of life dormant given to death–death a present thing… This reflection destroys every longing for the unattainable, for the glory, for the radiant unknown, and centres on the body itself, a grovelling physical fear rarefied and intensified to spiritual debasement.

The matter at hand, for him, is philosophical. Or spiritual, although not expressly religious. So maybe it’s literary-spiritual? In any event, the horror that Quigley found, in war, was tempered not only by the consolations of literature but redeemed, at least potentially, by the beauty that a committed Romantic might wrest from it by means of his art…

That attempt to answer intuitively the call of the beautiful in nature, even in the bleak horror of shell-holes, seemed the essence of life to me, the only thing worth seeking in the misery of this war. The call was everywhere, a fascinating thing; even within the fetid, slimy horror, of shell-holes it vibrated, for even there beauty smurred the filth with pure green and brought grass over it to hide the wound. But the final beauty of all lay in the spirit itself…

A glorification of the spirit undoubtedly, but if one neglected this spirit and faced reality, then life would have been unbearable in its bleak misery… The visionary triumphed over the warrior, and war itself became an abstraction, known only to a nightmarish imagination.

After a good deal more on philosophy, both historical and personal, as well as his Idealism and a none-too-subtle criticism of British generalship, the book comes back in its final paragraph to a less ambiguous position on the war:

War has ennobled the man to the angled, has stamped in gold the finest part of him, yet at what a price, what an agony, what a desecration of life! With that note of horror I shall close, for if every one could visualize always this horror and know its human application, war would absolutely cease, and our ruddy generals find a new occupation other than that of spreading an aureole round hell. There is only one thing real in life, and that is eternity. War remains at best a nauseous blasphemy.[2]

 

After such a peroration, no letter of Wilfred Owen to his mother could seem prolix or high-flown. But today’s brief note is very much down to earth, anyway–or to the earthen pavements of literary London, and the giants who walk it.

Dearest Mother,

I have just lunched with Ross, H. G. Wells, & Arnold Bennett. Wells talked exclusively to me for an hour over the coffee, & made jokes at the expense of the Editor of the Daily News, who joined us. I think I can’t honestly put more news under one penny stamp!

Your W.E.O.[3]

 

Speaking of literary eminence, and writers inclined to look down on human affairs from a height (ah, but this one doesn’t overwrite!) we have a letter today from Thomas Hardy, still the one elder held by our war poets in unbesmirched renown. The letter happens to be to Hamo Thornycroft, uncle of Siegfried Sassoon, and it lays bare a not entirely surprising despair, which is itself unsurprising in its effects–he is tired of London and correspondence, but he writes still, and wonders about the course of the war:

My dear Thornycroft:

Many thanks to the shade of Ovid for jogging your elbow to write—for to tell the truth we have been so benumbed by the events of the times as to have almost given up writing letters—or rather I have, for my wife still manages to keep on—unless some friend gives me a lead. However we are quite well, though London seems to get further & further off. We were there two days in the summer, & there was not time to do much, or see anybody, as you will imagine…

Do you think the raids will go on? They must cost our enemies an amount out of all proportion to the results. As to the war generally, it is not exhilarating to think that Germany is in a better position (or seems so, at the moment) than she was in three years ago, after all our struggles.

Kindest regards to all.

Yrs always sincerely

Thomas Hardy[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. It turns out that the title, Passchendaele and Somme, is inaccurate, and was probably stuck on this short collection of long, high-flown letters just to get the Two Most Disastrous Names next to each other in a bookshop window--Quigley was on the Somme before he was in the Passchendaele battle, and apparently saw no significant action there.
  2. Passchendaele and the Somme, 170-185.
  3. Collected Letters, 507.
  4. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 231-2.

Another Last Hurrah for Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and Ten Pounds of Distance; Ivor Gurney is to Convalesce; Edward Brittain is Bound for Italy

Today, a century back, was a day of departures.

In Edinburgh, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen spent a last evening together at the Conservative Club before Owen left to begin his leave and eventual return to duty. Sassoon will remember a hilarious evening of bad poetry–but that was last week. What Owen will remember is an inspirationally amicable meeting with an awkward post-script. Sassoon left him at the club–curfew at the hospital, after all, while Owen was going directly to a night train en route to Shrewsbury–with a sealed envelope, to be opened only after they parted.

Owen, naturally, waited no more than a minute or two. He hoped, perhaps, to be in possession of some grave confidence or juicy secret. Instead, he was in possession of a ten pound note and a suggestion that he use it to enjoy his leave.

I sat on the stairs and groaned a little, and then went up and loosed off a gourd, a Gothic vacuum of a letter, which I ‘put by.’[1]

The groan is generally interpreted as being directed at the money, or the assumptions that preceded such a gift. It is a strange situation, surely: Sassoon is wealthy and his wartime activities were never curtailed for want of funds; Owen is not, and could indeed use the sum to enjoy his leave, but while friends might ask each other for loans–even “loans” that will not be repaid–this unsolicited parting gift would have felt more like a tip than a favor. Owen is not in immediate need, and so a gift of money implies an assumption of social inequity. At least I think that’s how the class system worked in such a case.

But the groan could just as well be for the general inadequacy of the letter, its mere friendliness when Owen might have hoped for something more passionate. But he is not offended, really, it’s the groan of a joke gone wrong, not of agony and betrayal. The best evidence for this will be Owen’s very passionate reply–but, as he writes above, his first draft (the “gourd, a Gothic vacuum” is a reference to the bad poetry they have been mocking together) was not fit for sending…[2]

It’s an amusing coincidence, then, that the Cambridge Magazine of today, a century back, carried “The Wooden Cross,” one of Sassoon’s less satisfactory attempts at a memorial poem, written for his old hunting friend Gordon Harbord. Harbord, neither intellectual nor literary, had old claims on Sassoon’s affections–and that was a friendship that would never have included an unsolicited bank note in a sealed envelope…

 

Ivor Gurney, also near Edinburgh, is also leaving–or, at least, it was today, a century back, that he got the news:

3 November 1917

My Dear Friend: Well, to business, (probable.) Chuck out — Tuesday. London 7.30. High Wycombe, Friday Morning. Gloucester Sat: night (as late as can be.)

There’s a bit of luck; owing to slight indigestion (presumably due to gas; wink, wink!) I am to go to Command Depot for two months — a sort of Con: Camp in Khaki. I hope they will keep me for two months, and then of course, if the indigestion isn’t cured……….

This can be read as a Conspiracy to Malinger, but it needn’t be. Gurney is an old soldier, now, and certainly in no hurry to rush back for a winter at the front, what with his weak stomach (never mind his troubled “nerves”) and his ability to serve the army elsewhere, in his capacity as Convalescent Accompanist.

And, perhaps, get a little time to compose…

No, the song is not done, when I’m with you perhaps. Two months Con Camp! O Composition…

with best wishes: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

 

Finally, today, a date of which I’m not terribly sure–Vera Brittain remembers it, however, and probably with good reason, and apparently because it was the date she received a letter from her brother, not far away in the Salient:

But on November 3rd, when the Flanders offensive was subsiding dismally into the mud and Edward was daily expected home on leave, a brief, mysterious note came from him, written in the vaguely remembered Latin of the Sixth Form at Uppingham:

Hanc epistolam in lingua Latina male conscripta…

It is with a frustrated humility that I insert that ellipsis: Vera Brittain copied out the whole Latin letter. I can’t unpack it all, anyway, but the beginning reads: “This letter, written in bad Latin…”

It’s a creative attempt to foil the censors, but rather a silly one. If the idea is to keep classified information from the Germans, doubting their ability as Classicists hardly seems the wisest choice. Edward does, however, use further circumlocution (so to speak) to hint at the crucial news, and Vera is able to figure it out. But before she fully absorbs the significance of the letter, she turns it into the means of settling a score:

Calling desperately upon the elusive shades of Pass Mods, I managed to gather from this letter that Edward’s battalion had been ordered to join the British and French Divisions being sent from France under Lord Plumer and General Fayolle to reinforce the Italian Army. When I had recovered a little from the shock, I took his note to the C. of E. padre, a burly, rubicund individual whose manner to V.A.D.S was that of the family butler engaging the youngest between-maid, and with innocent eyes asked him to translate. As I had suspected, he had not the remotest idea where to begin, and after much protest about the thinness of the notepaper, and the illegibility of Edward’s clear handwriting, he was obliged, to my secret triumph, to confess his ignorance…

After putting one over on the hapless clergyman, she reflects on what the transfer might mean.

Well, it does make it necessary to mention, very much in passing, another of 1917’s major strategic developments.[4] The Italians have lately come close to collapsing under a strong Austro-German offensive, which is now threatening the Veneto. But, as always, “close” means little: winter is coming, and the Germans, perturbed by the tactical success around Ypres and the arrival of the Americans, are withdrawing their troops from the Italian front to send them to France. Italy will not collapse entirely under merely Austrian pressure, but the allies must go and show the flag, regardless.

For Vera Brittain, however, the calculus was more simple: Edward will be safer–probably–but farther away.

Although I was glad that Edward had left the Salient, I couldn’t help being disappointed that he was going so far away after I had manoeuvred myself, as I had hoped, permanently near him for the duration of our wartime lives.

“Half the point of being in France seems to be gone,” I told my family, “ and I didn’t realise until I heard he was
going how much I had . . . looked forward to seeing him walk up this road one day to see me. But I want you to try
and not worry about him more because he is there . . . no one who has not been out here has any idea how fed-up everyone is with France and with the same few miles of ground that have been solidly fought over for three years. There is a more sporting chance anywhere than here. Of course there has been great talk about the migration . . . and all the men whose units are going are very pleased.”[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 504-5.
  2. See Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 279-80.
  3. War Letters, 230.
  4. It seems that I may have succeeded in entirely avoiding mention of the Russian Revolution--it does crop up in the seventh paragraph or so of Gurney's letters, from time to time, but I often trim those. This is not simple negligence but rather a decision born out of a combination of despair at giving a decent big picture view along with all these closeups and a commitment to the principle that, in this sort of project, things should only matter to readers if and when they matter to the writers.
  5. Testament of Youth, 390-1.

Rowland Feilding Belatedly Locates the Machine Guns of the Somme; John Ronald Tolkien Still Suffers from its Fevers; Ivor Gurney on the Courage of Women

Rowland Feilding has been mixing light letters about life in reserve with accounts of how he is spending his own free time (which, as a battalion commander, can be considerable), namely walking the old battlefield of the Somme and remembering what he and his men endured during the Battle of Ginchy last September 9th.

You will remember what a terrific fire we encountered when we attacked at this place. I have ever since been curious to know where that fire came from, and how so powerful a concentration of machine-guns could have complete escaped our artillery. Now I know. A well-concealed and winding trench, branching into two, and worked in conjunction with nests of shell-holes adapted as machine-gun positions! That is what we ran into, and it was a hopeless task we undertook that day…[1]

 

One of the casualties of the Somme–of its infectious diseases rather than its bullets, shrapnel, or gas–was John Ronald Tolkien. He has yet to return to full health, and, after a severe relapse which put him in the hospital for nine weeks, he went before a Medical Board today in Hull. The report was middling:

He has still not recovered his strength; he suffers from debility and pain in his arms and shins, and he looks delicate

Declared “30 per cent disabled,” Tolkien was sent back to the 3rd Lancashire Fusiliers at Thirtle Bridge, for light duty. The board’s decision may be changed later, but for now Tolkien has some reason to hope that he has seen the last of the trenches.[2]

 

Alas for Ivor Gurney that this is not true. He remains in hospital, but with a wink and a nod: his lungs are more or less fine–it is his talented fingers which keep him there, accompanying all the would-be singers in their own recoveries.

16 October 1917

My Dear Friend: This is a most lovely morning, and I ought to be out on the hills somewhere instead of writing letters, even to you. For letter writing is work of a sort, though I like it not badly here, and in France it is often a pleasure.

There is not much to tell you, there is no masterpiece of chiselled and exquisite verse…

Is it wise of me to play music? Well, I do, but know only too well that the effort to forget will be an extra difficulty against the little serenity I shall have in France. Unless I grow stronger of soul of course, and so much stronger is unlikely. The things I should most like to write are things of beauty with a vinegary ending, something after “The Fire Kindled”. Heine I believe is famous for that sort of thing. It is best to be Shakespeare but good to be Heine — though not Thersites.

Gurney is almost always etceterative–and occasionally tremendous. What an idea–to write beautiful, vinegary things, like Heine. And Thersites is a rare reference, but an excellent one: Gurney perhaps remembers him as the one common soldier who makes a role for himself in the Iliad, where Thersites is an ugly, misshapen grumbler amongst the gleaming heroes and handsome demigods who lead the Greek army, a would be mutineer who is scorned and battered into silence by his betters. But he is, nevertheless, a common man with a voice in the great poem.

Gurney is, as usual, writing to Marion Scott, and he segues now from his own classically-cast ambition (and muted grumbling) to a consideration of women at war. It is typical of his intelligence that he takes an observation (and one which runs against the grain of all-too-typical prejudices) and proceeds without much fanfare to a sensitive (and sensible) reconsideration of a Big Concept–courage, in this case  .

…Nurses are really wonderful people to do so many things distasteful and still to smile. There is a very nice set of nurses here (have I told you?) that could hardly be better. They call this the “Ragtime Ward”, a name of envy given by men oppressed in places of female dragons and discipline. The courage of women is certainly not less than that of men. To my mind, that is. The serene performance of hateful duties, and the refusal to be depressed by them is the finest form of courage. The more sensational are the wilder forms — no higher. There are a few soldiers who go on till they are knocked out, not heeding wounds, most of these comparative few have supported their nerves only too freely beforehand. The rest may be the flower of earth, but the man who can be brotherly and crack a joke on a winter night in a shell hole has undoubted undeniable unsupported courage, which is not always certain of the spectacular gentlemen, who may be Berserk or drunk. But there! It is only my preference perhaps for serene and quiet strength rather than for the violent kind. Violence is waste of energy.

Here endeth the umptieth lesson…

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 215.
  2. Chronology, 102.
  3. War Letters, 222-4.