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 Goes to Town, and Writes of Base Details and Lofty Imaginings; Also: Tolkien Encouraged; Henry Williamson on the Somme; Moncrieff in the Cathedral; Thomas Hardy on Prisoners; Edward Thomas Queries the Incoming

On the most martial day in the calendar–“March Forth!”–Siegfried Sassoon, a century back, did. In verse. In body he was lolling about, still stuck in Rouen’s massive base, released from hospital but moldering, deedless, without any responsibilities, awaiting assignment to a line battalion. So he did what any angry young man might do, and got the best luncheon he could, at the Hôtel de la Poste, and thought nasty thoughts about the other diners.

I was a bit tentative when I first discussed Sassoon’s prose sketches at Rouen–and a good thing, too. I’m not sure how to read Jean Moorcroft-Wilson’s suggested dating of lunch, prose description, and poem[1]–but I don’t think we can know for certain since Sassoon evidently flipped around in his pocket notebook (beautifully scanned by the University of Cambridge), using different sections for notes, sketches, poem drafts, and the chronological diary. But I would hazard a guess that he did not write “Lunch on Sunday in Rouen” until today, a century back. The published diary prints the sketches immediately after the February 27th entry, but it makes more sense to assume that the luncheon took place today, when the dated diary entry confirms that Sassoon left the camp for a day in Rouen proper. Even if the lunch was earlier, today’s trip to Rouen certainly gave rise to at least one poem (about church-going–see below), and it seems likely that Sassoon lunched, saw the church, went for a walk, returned to camp, wrote the sketches, and then, afterward, the two poems. Sassoon, at least, dates both poems “March 4th,” then again this might be a smoking gun of autobiographical fallicizing: he could be dating the poetry not by its writing but by its conception in his life experience…

In any case, we have two experiences which give rise to much writing and which are linked by the figure of a “stout Staff Major.” The protagonist of “In the Cathedral” is reflecting on the inspirational beauty of the church of Saint-Ouen (not, in fact, the famous Rouen cathedral but rather a smaller church similarly equipped with magnificent Gothic windows) but when he comes away he runs into the major, who seems to personify the loss of his elevated mood. Our tentatively religious but gallopingly aesthetic officer concludes that nothing really matters and that “the War went on, pitiless, threatening to continue for ever.” But the fat major really belongs, thematically, to the next piece, “Lunch on Sunday in Rouen,” in which the now-cynical poet’s-view officer inwardly curses the contented staff officers he finds gorging themselves over luncheon.

But Sassoon had a considerable poetic gift for compressed, nasty fits of pique. Some stories are worth telling at great length, in prose, twice, but others work best in verse. Other than borrowing a favorite phrase–“scarlet majors”–from Robbie Ross, “Base Details” draws directly on the language of the prose piece, and to great effect.

 

Base Details

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. ‘Poor young chap,’
I’d say—‘I used to know his father well.
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war was done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die — in bed.

 

This is a great leap forward in invective, and it begins with the “scarlet majors,” a damning term freighted with allusion. First, the rank of major has become an important symbol of military bureaucracy: it’s the lowest rank that is not usually in command of an actual unit of men (captains get companies, lieutenant-colonels get battalions), and for that reason it is most likely to contain indifferent career soldiers and middle-aged New Army nonentities,men who can order about even the most heroic small-unit leader. Heller’s Major Major Major is not far off. Second, “scarlet” does yoeman’s work, two-syllable proof of all that poetic compression can accomplish. It’s a flowery adjective, a romantic word, and yet it connotes sin and hints at various other emotional states: are these majors sinful? are they prone to livid screaming? flushed with drink? Finally, it points to the red badges worn on cap and uniform tabs by members of the staff–scarlet, the color of the old British Army, and laughably ill-suited to being anywhere within actual sight of the enemy. They are safe, they are well-fed, they are inconsequential (turning on the generals and the politicians would require taking a different tack), and their jobs are, indeed, to speed young heroes up the line, to whatever awaits them there.

Then there’s all that good work with onomatopoeia as the contented staff officers tear at their rich food, the excellent mimicry of a certain sort of self-satisfied utterance… there’s the irresistible “up the line to death,” which will make this poem not only an anthology stalwart but an anthology title… and there’s the hammer-blow of the last couplet (“toddle” was a late improvement on “waddle”). This isn’t a protest against the war, exactly, but it is a heavy blow against its conduct, almost unforgettable in its slamming conclusion. It will do more than any other poem to draw the conceptual line between aggrieved, disillusioned young combatants and the older/safer/staffier cohort who are no longer worthy of their respect–or, the poem argues, ours.

So, has Siegfried Sassoon made a full conversion to rage? Not exactly.

 

March 4

One of the medieval Rosaces of Saint-Ouen; the lancet window Sassoon describes I have not yet found

Half-an-hour in the glorious Eglise de St. Ouen, with soft notes of the organ and chanting voices, and burning blossoms of colour in the high windows; one was a narrow arch of green and silver with touches of topaz and pale orange—most delicate and saintly. Below was the huddle of black-cloaked and bonneted women and grey-headed men, with a few soldiers, French and English, and children.

Then a train hurried me up the hill to Bois Guillaume… woods with a chilly wind soughing in the branches of beech and oak, and a grey sky overhead, and a carpet, of dry beech-leaves underfoot. And one thrush singing a long way off, singing as if he did not yet quite believe in the end of winter.

The other surviving medieval rosace at Saint-Ouen

The delicate, aspiring, grey pillars of St.Ouen are noble, and the rich colours there do not change, except when darkness falls outside. There will be such beauty in these woods at the end of April as no Mediaeval builder could imitate. But they had the idea in their heads, when they lifted up that miracle of stone and crystal, and crowned it with deep-toned bells, calling down the peace of God to comfort the good citizens of Rouen.

 

In the Church of St. Ouen

Time makes me a soldier; but I know
That had I lived six hundred years ago,
I might have tried to build within my heart
A church like this; where I could dwell apart,
With chanting peace; my spirit longs for prayer,
And, lost to God, I seek him everywhere.
Here, while the windows, burn and bloom like flowers,
And sunlight falls and fades with tranquil hours,
I could be half a saint, for like a rose
In heart-shaped stone the glory of Heaven glows.
But where I stand, desiring yet to stay,
Hearing rich music at the close of day
The Spring Offensive (Easter is its date)
Calls me. And that’s the music I await.

March 4

An entirely different poem–one so lush (“purple”) that Sassoon, faintly embarrassed, will not offer it for publication. Entirely different–a religious sonnet, a sincere paean to beauty, a dream without cynicism, a thing belonging to a world of quiet contemplation…  until the last couplet, when the war returns with a thump. See here, and throughout the diary for more of Sassoon’s notes on St. Ouen, including several sketches…

I’m displeased that he doesn’t see the date-pun (or perhaps he does, and lets it lie very quietly here, to march 4th to the Spring Offensive) but clearly Sassoon is of two minds–one furious, the other exalted/tragic. I also need not point out, surely, that dating the coming offensive to Easter is less a subaltern divulging crucial strategic details to his poetry notebook than a non-religious poet, standing in the glory of a rosace, and diffidently taking up the fabulously rich cultural tradition that delivers to him in the appointed hour a narrative of suffering, violent death at the hands of imperial soldiers, and–if I remember correctly–redemption.

Complexity? Negative capability? The containing of multitudes? Near madness? Sassoon, in the next but in his diary, opts for the last:

This will never do…  Now to be a saint one must suffer. And I am more qualified for the job after six months in the front line than after sixty years in a cathedral cloister. Religious feeling is a snare set by one’s emotional weakness. Religion is a very stern master, who promises nothing and demands all.

The distant rumble of guns can be heard from the line… There is a sort of unreasoning, inhuman gaiety in the air which is beyond description… I sometimes feel that everyone (even the Base-Colonels) will suddenly go stark mad arid begin shooting one another instead of the Germans. The whole business is so monstrously implacable to all human tenderness. We creep about like swarms of insects. And all the while there is the spectacle of Youth being murdered.[2]

 

Phew. Well, Sassoon’s stagnation has produced some strong writing; will the trenches be as kind to his seething muse?

The rest of our business today can be quickly accomplished:

First, a near-miss. Charles Scott Moncrieff, too, is church-going in Rouen. He and Sassoon might have passed on the street, although they attended different churches. This letter of tomorrow describes today, a century back:

5th March, 1917.

Left hospital yesterday—Sunday, as I had done a fortnight earlier. Went down to the Cathedral, and was surprised and rather pleased to find a very splendid young Cardinal—I think the new Archbishop of Rouen—who made a fine figure in the usually empty throne. I was outside the grille of the choir just opposite him. When he stood up to give the Benediction his voice at once filled the huge, hollow, cold and empty building. . . .[3]

 

And Henry Williamson began a new diary today, a century back–and visited the Somme battlefield.

Weather clearing. Went to Beaumont Hamel. Saw Y Ravine. Terrible place. Deep dugouts. Artillery moving forward. Strafe tonight. Coy. goes in line Tuesday.[4]

The visit may have been part pilgrimage, to look for the grave of his cousin Charlie Boon. But Williamson is an inveterate wanderer, and he will make use of this mid-war bit of battlefield tourism when he comes to place his alter ego in the thick of the Somme battle. The deep dugouts, in fact, become a major fixation of his fictional account of June, 1916.

 

Back in Dorset, a letter from Thomas Hardy–the least scarlet of all old men–shows his persistently humane and tragic view of the war, even in a time of calls for national service.

Max Gate, Dorchester, March 4: 1917

We are living uneventful lives here (if the news of war events are not reckoned) feeling no enterprize for going about & seeing people while the issue of the great conflict is in the balance—& I fear that by the time the issue is  reached I shall be too far on to old age to care to do so. The actual reminder in this house that the struggle is going on is that I have some German prisoners at work in the garden, cutting down some trees, & clearing the ground for more potato-room. They are amiable young fellows, & it does fill one with indignation that thousands of such are led to slaughter by the ambitions of Courts & Dynasties. If only there were no monarchies in the world, what a chance for its amelioration![5]

 

Christopher Wiseman sent a letter today, a century back to the only fellow survivor of the four core members of the T.C.B.S. The letter is both elegiac and hortatory: Tolkien must carry on, both with publishing G.B. Smith’s poems and with developing his own work:

The reason why I want you to write the epic is because I want you to connect all these [poems and tales] up properly, & make their meaning & context tolerably clear. [6]

 

Finally, Edward Thomas. Yesterday was a less than ideal birthday. Today his presents arrived, but his mind is elsewhere–and not in a good place.

Shelling at 5.30. I don’t like it. I wonder where I shall be hit as in bed I wonder if it is better to be on the window or outer side of room or on the chimney on inner side, whether better to be upstairs where you may fall or on the ground floor where you may be worse crushed. Birthday parcels from home.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See Moorcroft-Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 325-6.
  2. Diaries, 139-42.
  3. Diaries, 125-6.
  4. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 91.
  5. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 204.
  6. Chronology, 99.
  7. War Diary (Childhood), 167.

Fear Stalks Beside Frederic Manning; Siegfried Sassoon Pronounces From the Pulpit: ‘The Ways of God Are Strange!’

Doesn’t it feel as if it has been rather a long time since a well-known war poet has produced a verifiable, date-able classic of Great War verse? Well, tonight’s the night.[1] This evening, a century back, Siegfried Sassoon, in one burst of late-night inspiration at Robbie Ross’s London flat, wrote out a nearly complete draft of “They.” Sometimes it all comes together: seminal moment, origin story, pseudo-humble retrospective commentary, and sharp, slashing verse…

 

They

The Bishop tells us: ‘When the boys come back
‘They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
‘In a just cause: they lead the last attack
‘On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
‘New right to breed an honourable race,
‘They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.
”We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply.
‘For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
‘Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
‘And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
‘A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.
And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange!’

 

Although, of all things, the word “syphilitic” will prove to be a bridge too far and require (temporary) emendation, this poem will shortly be published and mark Sassoon’s arrival as a war poet. He will come to describe the genesis of this poem in his rather strained self-deprecating-gentleman mode:

I merely chanced on the device of composing two or three harsh, peremptory, and colloquial stanzas with a knock-out blow in the last line…

Perhaps, but it’s probably not really that simple. The technique–which others have used, under other guises[2]–is an obviously effective way to approach sonnet-sized verse… if you can land it.

Many critics have noted Sassoon’s debt to Hardy–which Sassoon himself acknowledges at precisely this point in the memoir–but surely the technique must be a bit more deliberate. It’s an old dodge, the creative writer preferring to describe himself as a discoverer rather than a creator… and there are always models.

The other familiar antecedents are, of course, Masefield–who had been the first target of Sassoon’s unlikely success as a parodist-into-satirist-into poet–and Kipling. Kipling’s influence–or rather his presence as the arch-representative of the imperial old guard, poetic and militaristic both–is perhaps more obvious in the “A Ballad,” another recent provider of a knock-out blow.

Never mind that Sassoon is an officer and a gentleman, possessed of both a private income and a strangely Somme-long sick leave:  Kipling is old and something is not right with the war, and that’s what matters now. The adoption of Kiplingesque rhythms in a poem that claims to speak for “Tommy” against the powers that be reads to us, now, as a strangely tone-deaf assumption of privilege–the privilege, in this case, of speaking for the presumably silent soldiers under one’s command, a replacement of one sort of overlord with a more understanding and humble sort of… well, officer in command. It would not have been as consistently read that way, a century back, both because of the broader acceptance of class privilege and because there are many lines and Sassoon is–or has been, and will be–on the right side of the most important one. Generals and Kiplings and other old men are almost all safe, but lieutenants die as often as privates.

Nevertheless, this speaking-for-the-troops is also an aggressive move at literary place-making. This is Sassoon’s effort, as disarming as he will later try to be, to take that poetic hammer to the father-god’s kneecaps, and clear out the older generation. And that, of course, would leave a vacuum…

But we are straying–back to the fortunate moment. Creations make for good stories even if the creator/storyteller wishes to stand aside for the muse with a Bertie Wooster-ish look of polite bemusement:

One evening toward the end of October, when I was staying with Robbie at his rooms in Half Room Street, he had been exercising his wit rather freely at the expense of the Bishop of London, who–for some reason unknown to me at the time–was a frequent target of his. My own acquaintance with the Bishop had been restricted to a single occasion… I had in fact been confirmed by him in St. Paul’s Cathedral..

This was thirteen years before–an amusing coincidence–and Sassoon then has a mild laugh at the subject of this confirmation becoming the first English poet to work “syphilitic” into his verse.

On the evening I am describing Robbie read me an extract from a speech or sermon reported in some newspaper in which the Bishop had expressed his belief that those who were serving on the Front would return with their souls purged and purified by what they had experienced, or words to that effect. This sort of thing was often said at the time, by those beyond the age of active service. As an abstract idea there was nothing against it… But on the whole one was justified in resenting it as inappropriate though well-intentioned bunkum. Anyhow I went upstairs to bed after several hours of lively talk, feeling too tired to be bothered about the Bishop of London or anybody else. But while I lay there with the light out, not quite succeeding in falling asleep, the first few lines of they came into my head as though from nowhere. So I got up to scribble them in my note-book, and the rest of the poem was written then and there…

The peculiar thing about it was that while writing the first draft I was so drowsy that I could scarcely keep my eyes open, and was fast asleep in a few minutes after finishing it. Such was the ‘fine frenzy’ with which I composed what subsequently proved to be the most publicly effective poem I had yet written…[3]

 

As it happens, we have a letter, today, from one of the very few educated, poetic, future-author-types who is actually serving in the ranks, writing from a miserable dugout several months into his continuous Somme-front service. This is Frederic Manning, mired amidst the events which will form the basis for the climax of his novel. Manning describes working as a messenger, as his fictional alter-ego will in turn.

We are supposed to go in pairs but so far I had always gone alone…  I am not ashamed to say that I have felt fear walking beside me like a live thing: the torn and flooded road, the wreckage, mere bones of what were living houses … absolute peace of the landscape and indifferent stars, then the ear catches the purr of a big shell, it changes from a purr lo a whine and detonates on concussion. Another comes, then a third. After that a short space of quiet. Sometimes, as I have said, I feel fear, but usually with the fear is mingled indifference which is not pious enough to be termed resignation.[4]

Could there be a more effective way of pointing up the insufficiency of Sassoon’s poem? Many men come home outwardly whole, and terribly changed nonetheless. Sassoon, with his initial enthusiasm for the boyish exercise and excitement of war and his scant experience of prolonged line-holding, has decided to hunt the more obvious game first. But he will turn to the inward battle, in time, as all the real poets must.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Probably! See Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 302-7.
  2. I hadn't read Siegfried's Journey when I decided to start referring to the "hammer blow," but I probably stole the phrase from somewhere... poetry has rhythm, after all, and we are a violent-metaphor-loving species...
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 29-30.
  4. The Last Exquisite, 125.

Siegfried Sassoon on Nature, from Larks to Slugs; Contemplated Bravado and a Pair of Sonnets from Alan Seeger; Raymond Asquith is Back with the Battalion, and Finds Nothing Whatever to Complain About; Private Lord Crawford on the Entente Between the Sexes

Siegfried Sassoon, back in the support lines, measures quiet and contentment. Will the larks never cease? It seems sometimes as if the sounds of the Western Front are 80% ordinance, 6% overhead Cockney cheerfulness, 3% shouted German taunts, and 11% lark song. But this is a quiet sector:

May 23 6.15 p.m.

On Crawley Ridge. A very still evening. Sun rather hazy but sky mostly clear. Looking across to Fricourt: trench-mortars bursting in the cemetery: clouds of dull white vapour slowly float away over grey-green grass with yellow buttercup-smears, and saffron of weeds. Fricourt, a huddle of reddish roofs, skeleton village—church-tower white—almost demolished, a patch of white against the sombre green of the Fricourt wood (full of German batteries). Away up the hill the white seams and heapings of trenches dug in the chalk. The sky full of lark-songs. Sometimes you can count thirty slowly and hear no sound of a shot: then the muffled pop of a rifle-shot a long way off, or a banging 5.9, or our eighteen-pounder—then a burst of machinegun westward, the yellow sky with a web of whitish filmy cloud half across the sun; and the ridges rather blurred with outlines of trees; an airplane droning overhead. A thistle sprouting through the chalk on the parapet; a cockchafer sailing through the air a little way in front.

Down the hill, and on to the old Bray-Fricourt road, along by the railway; the road white and hard; a partridge flies away calling; lush grass everywhere, and crops of nettles; a large black slug out for his evening walk (doing nearly a mile a month, I should think)…[1]

An interesting interloper, that slug: is our poet merely noting his observations, or is there a special providence in this slow and steady–and notably loathsome–earth-dweller?

 

Alan Seeger is writing steadily and readily again. First, today, to his mother, reflecting on the pleasure and vicissitudes of service in a rather more active sector. Well, actually a fairly quiet one as well–but not if Seeger can help it.

May 23, 1916

We are just back after six days in first line. We are lodged in a big quarry in the woods. It is rather cold and damp inside, but extremely picturesque immense subterranean galleries, foursquare, cut in the solid rock, pitch black inside with here and there little points of light where the men stick their candles.

The week in first line was very pleasant. The weather was superb and I was never bored an instant, neither in the beautiful days when the unclouded sunlight came filtering through the branches of the forest, nor in the starry nights that at this time of year fade even before two o’clock into the wonder of the spring dawn. Nothing more adorable in Nature than this daybreak in the northeast in May and June. One hears the cockcrows in the villages of that mysterious land behind the German lines. Then the cuckoos begin to call in the green valleys and all at once, almost simultaneously, all the birds of the forest begin to sing. The cannon may roar, and the rifles crackle, but Nature’s program goes on just the same.

Remarkably like Sassoon, so far, today. Spring! Poets! Soldiers in the line!

There’s one major difference, though, which is that the French army, in which Seeger serves, has been desperately engaged at Verdun for many weeks, and is beginning to be exhausted (although that, of course, will get much worse). The English have yet to make a major attack, and anticipate doing so soon, not least to support their exhausted allies.

The likelihood of a big action in the near future is vanishing more and more. The general opinion is that Verdun has not only mangé beaucoup de monde [eaten up everyone] but what is more important, beaucoup de munitions. As the French seem in counterattacks to be making serious efforts and even on a large scale to regain some of the lost ground, I do not expect anything on other parts of the front for some time to come, unless it be the English. If it turn out that we have actually retaken Douaumont, it will be a magnificent achievement. I shall ask permission to go out and leave the newspapers on the German barbed wire. I have already made several patrols here and know the ground.

Goodbye; bon courage.

There’s a nice short paragraph to stand for the Poetic Attitude and how, even in 1916, it can somehow still contain the bare facts of 20th century attrition–Verdun is indeed consuming the materiel and men of France at an unprecedented rate–and a resolve toward foolish heroics that seems to belong to a 19th century boy’s tale (or, it must be said, some truthy tale of pre-rifle heroics).

Remarkably, a second letter of today, to his godmother (!) is much more frank about his derring-will-do. Seeger out-Sassoons Sassoon today:

May 23, 1916

Exasperated by the inactivity of the sector here and tempted by danger, I stole off twice after guard and made a patrol all by myself through the wood paths and trails between the lines. In the first of these, at a crossing of paths not far from one of our posts, I found a burnt rocket-stick planted in the ground and a scrap of paper stuck in the top, placed there by the Boches to guide their little mischief-making parties when they come to visit us in the night. The scrap of paper was nothing else than a bit of the Berliner Tageblatt. This seemed so interesting to me that I reported it to the captain, though my going out alone this way is a thing strictly forbidden. He was very decent about it though, and seemed really interested in the information. Yesterday afternoon I repeated this exploit, following another trail, and I went so far that I came clear up to the German barbed wire, where I left a card with my name. It was very thrilling work, “courting destruction with taunts, with invitations,” as Whitman would say. I have never been in a sector like this, where patrols could be made in daylight. Here the deep forest permits it. It also greatly facilitates ambushes, for one must keep to the paths, owing to the underbrush. I and a few others are going to try to get permission to go out on patrouilles d’embuscade and bring in some live prisoners. It would be quite an extraordinary feat if we could pull it off. In our present existence it is the only way I can think of to get the Croix de Guerre. And to be worthy of my marraine [godmother, to whom he is writing] I think that I ought to have the Croix de Guerre.

Here are two sonnets I composed to while away the long hours of guard. . . .

The sonnets are below. This is quite something, really, in terms of “real time” history. It’s spring, and the poetic heroes are getting frisky: Julian Grenfell may be decorated and dead, but E. A. Mackintosh, recently, and now Seeger, and soon enough Sassoon himself all setting out to win fame and capture prisoners. May 1916 is the month of the raid…

Now for the poetry!

I will send you back again the Tennyson after having refreshed myself with it, for one must lighten the sack as much as possible. Found all the old beauties and discovered new ones. Read the last paragraphs of Maud and see if you do not think they have a striking bearing on the present situation.

BELLINGLISE
I
Deep in the sloping forest that surrounds
The head of a green valley that I know,
Spread the fair gardens and ancestral grounds
Of Bellinglise, the beautiful château.
Through shady groves and fields of unmown grass,
It was my joy to come at dusk and see,
Filling a little pond’s untroubled glass,
Its antique towers and mouldering masonry.
Oh, should I fall to-morrow, lay me here,
That o’er my tomb, with each reviving year,
Wood-flowers may blossom and the wood-doves croon;
And lovers by that unrecorded place,
Passing, may pause, and cling a little space,
Close-bosomed, at the rising of the moon.
II
Here, where in happier times the huntsman’s horn
Echoing from far made sweet midsummer eves,
Now serried cannon thunder night and morn,
Tearing with iron the greenwood’s tender leaves.
Yet has sweet Spring no particle withdrawn
Of her old bounty; still the song-birds hail,
Even through our fusillade, delightful Dawn;
Even in our wire bloom lilies of the vale.
You who love flowers, take these; their fragile bells
Have trembled with the shock of volleyed shells,
And in black nights when stealthy foes advance
They have been lit by the pale rockets’ glow
That o’er scarred fields and ancient towns laid low
Trace in white fire the brave frontiers of France.[2]

 

What could be more appropriate to the American Europhile than this combination of the hunter’s horn and a near-citation of the Star-Spangled Banner? So yes, this is more Sassoon than Sassoon, but it’s also something Sassoon rarely is, in his poetry: both traditional and ungentle. Seeger goes for effect here, and forces his words into a halthing rhythm. These sonnets start from firm footing amidst the poetic tradition and launch with a clear purpose–but they stumble a bit before they arrive at their triumphantly hammering conclusions, listing oddly rather than soaring.

And these stumbles mean something, personally, militarily, and poetically: are we really getting there? Are the old habits and convictions enough to carry the day, or is the wire before the objective festooned with old paper, and as yet uncut?

 

Finally today–it’s been such an unexpectedly active few weeks!–we must catch up with Raymond Asquith. After an agonizing shift in the stultifying boredom, semi-honorable idiocy, and complete physical safety of General Headquarters, he is at last back with his battalion. Hurrah! He’s going to love it there, right?

Let’s go back a few days and see:

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
20 May 1916

… In this part of the line we are surrounded and overlooked by the Germans on almost every side and they have a great number of guns in good positions which they loose off pretty continuously. We were fairly heavily shelled on Thursday and had some casualties, but nothing really to matter. The weather being so fine puts a picnic complexion on the whole affair and obscures the less agreeable aspects.

All officers have to be up all night but the nights are so short that this is not a very severe tax and at 3.30 a.m. we have a cup of coffee and turn in, if there is anywhere to turn in; if not, sleep in the open, as I did last night with great comfort and enjoyment. One advantage of the weakness of our position is that it is impossible to work or even move during the day, so one simply lies about dozing in the sun till about 8.30 p.m. We have given up luncheon and have bacon and eggs at 11 a.m., tea at 4 and dinner–a substantial meal-at 7. We are in for 5 days on end this time–the longest I have ever done at a stretch but the conditions are so favourable that I don’t think it takes it out of one so much as 2 days in the winter trenches . . .

 

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
22 May 1916

. . . After 10 days here we are going 10 miles or so further back to live in billets for 3 weeks. I am rather depressed at the prospect. The perfect way to do this war would be G.H.Q. for these waste spaces and regimental life for the spells of trench work…

 

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
23 May 1916

. . . As for me I am already more bored with this tiresome camp than ever I was with G.H.Q. We were allowed an easy time today but for the next week wd live a terribly strenuous and wearisome life–a certain amount of drill and a great many “fatigues”–i.e . digging trenches, laying cables, fetching and carrying, hewing wood and drawing water for other people. Personally I prefer anything to drill…

I knew I should begin grousing as soon as I got away from G.H.Q. but I suppose I should have groused more if I had stayed there.

One’s heart goes out to Katherine Asquith, home with a newborn, knowing now that each letter confirms that her husband is alive, or was, a few days past, and opening it to read such reassurances and tender thoughts…

There is no avoiding the boredom of this War, turn which way you may. There is more novelty and excitement about the trenches themselves than any other part of the show, but I should still be discontented if I were made to stay in them for a month on end instead of coming out and doing these bloody fatigues and things… One fearful addition to the honours of War since I have been away is the steel helmet which we all have to wear now, when in the shell area. They are monstrously tiresome and heavy and I suppose if idiots like Pemberton Rifling had not asked questions in Parliament about them we should have been allowed to go on with our comfortable caps. We make the bloody things better than anyone else does of course by sewing the blue and red brigade ribbon with a gold grenade on it, on to the khaki cover, but even so they are insufferable. . .[3]

 

Insufferable!

Finally, I simply must cram this in: an update on Lord Crawford’s battle of the sexes–unreliably reported, as always.

Monday, 22 May 1916

The last three or four weeks have marked a great reaction in the attitude of the nurses towards us. After months of scolding and vituperation they have become amiable and at times friendly. The transformation has been caused by the matron MacCrae who has bullied and harassed the wretched women to such an extent that they feel the need of support, and have entered into a tacit alliance with us! The burden and weariness of our lives is greatly reduced. Let us hope there will be no counter reaction–anyhow, for a fortnight we have lived in peace. The matron is, of course, more insistent than ever finding the hands of all turned against her, especially since this unholy entente between the sexes! Today she gave orders that in future, when going up and down stairs, orderlies are not to put their hands on the banisters–which strikes me as really droll. Had she not treated us with contumely and the nurses with brutality, one would be charitable enough to assume the woman was going potty.[4]

Matron MacCrae will be officially commended for her services…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 64.
  2. Letters and Diary, 198-202. The poem is dated yesterday a century back, but goes nicely with these letters...
  3. Life and Letters, 262-3.
  4. Private Lord Crawford, 170.

Verse and Prose from Noel Hodgson; Francis Ledwidge in an English Fog; Edward Thomas Dismissed

It’s a field day for Noel Hodgson today, a century back. Not only did he complete another sketch, but one of his war poems was published in The New Witness. It is not of the “happy warrior” school:

 

A Field

Here sorrow has no beauty, death no greatness.
Where the dumb fields from Heaven to Heaven run
In a dull poverty of desolateness
Under a blind sky, and the rain is spun
In a grey web that long has slain the sun.
To go down reeling in a wild endeavour.
Or take unvanquished in a heart of scorn
The inevitable sword–were well–but never
In these low lands to watch as soon as born
The golden thread in abjectness outworn.
The worth of all things is what men will pay.
And for these mean fields men die every day.[1]

So a realist poem, in a way–grey and grim, with no praise for war. Yet this is still traditional stuff, the diction more faux-Tennysonian than would-be-modern Brookean. “To go down reeling in a wild endeavour” is a very good line, worthy of a companion of Ulysses–but to what end? The poem breaks with the heroic tradition… but only a little. Achilles was well aware that life was short and ordinary existence grey and poor, and he fought on; the Victorian Ulysses refused to abide in the mean fields–or barren crags, rather–and pushed off, and admiral of romancers rather than a subaltern of infantry.

Hodgson’s poem begins on a low note and it holds heroism at arm’s length. But it does not reject “endeavour.” And then there’s the diction problem. Hodgson throws in a bunch of sesquipedalian semi-sequiturs, and he renders “not dead” as “unvanquished,” a sure sign that he is caught between the beautiful idea of dying in some attractively dashing way and the realization that the poets who ignore grim ordinariness of the “fields” in which the dying will be done (not “fields of glory,” but “mean fields” sown with barley or sugar beets) have been doing a disservice to truth.

So Hodgson is on the path from pro-war poetry toward the poetry of protest, but caught yet in No Man’s Land. There is doubt, but the language doesn’t come along with it. Those last two lines should hammer the new discordant note and leave it to resonate, but instead they limp lamely in, one after another…

And here’s the prose, written today, and with a very recognizable protagonist. Hodgson himself has recently returned to his unit from a feverish spell in hospital, impelled by his sense of responsibility when other company leaders were wounded.

There and Back

Up the slope of that tall ridge which encloses the southern aspect of a little hospital town in the Somme country was climbing an officer entering on the last week of a blessed term of convalescence. His hard-worn khaki with a small ribbon on the left breast, and a certain grimness of the mouth, indicated that for some months his way had been in stony places of war. Even now his enjoyment showed in his eyes only.

It was one of those incomparable mornings after rain, when every line is clear and every colour vivid almost
beyond belief. The sky and the little clouds that floated about the horizon seemed to have been washed to a spring freshness, and for the first time in many weeks the sun was warm upon his neck. Arrived at the top of the hill he let himself down in luxurious laziness on the grass, and lighting a black and battered pipe, surveyed the prospect. Below him in the valley among the poplars, whose sober tracery was already faintly tinged with green, lay the red and white of cottages dominated by twin towers, their stone mellowed with the passage of five hundred years. Faintly through the branches glimmered the blue of water, and beyond again a thick fir spinney crowning a quarry stood black against the russet poplars. Behind and over it all swelled the opposing ridge, where the smooth swathe of grass and stubble was broken by the vivid green of young wheat and the rich umber of damp ploughland. Away to the eastward, in a hollow of the hills, the square pile of a great abbey rose mistily from the smoke of the city, and farther still the downs ran, ridge upon ridge, into the mists o f illimitable distance—a Kingdom of dream.

No sign or sound of conflict broke the spell of that healing quiet ; not the echo of a gun, not the distant vision of a hovering ’plane. But all the sounds of the living country mingled ; the rippling song of the larks, the chirping grasshoppers, the rumble of a farm cart on the valley-road, and, as it were the motive and spirit of it all, the delicate melancholy of a far-off church-bell.

For a long time he lay and watched the shadows chase over the wide-breasted hills, then, knocking out
his pipe, rose slowly and took the downward way, to the village, where, in cat-like content, the Territorial soldiers were smoking their caporals about their doorsteps.

Presently a passing Englishman saluted, and he became aware of a familiar face.

“’Morning, Taylor,” he said, stopping his walk.

“What are you doing here?” The old soldier smiled respectfully.

“I’ve brought your second-in-command and your sergeant-major down, sir.”

“What! Mr. Holland and Sergeant Kirke—wounded?”

“Yes, sir, the two of them was wounded by a rifle grenade.”

“Badly?”

“No, sir ; in the legs mostly.” The officer looked thoughtful, and tapped his leg with his cane.

“They’re in the C.C.S., I suppose?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I must go and see them—that leaves Mr. Gibson in command of the company?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And only Mr. Sands to help him?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Last night you arrived, eh? Yes—well. I’m very sorry. Thank you, Taylor.”

The man saluted, and the officer continued his walk. In the hospital grounds he met the Doctor.

“Doctor,” he said, “I think I’m fit enough to rejoin the regiment to-morrow.”

April 20th, 1916.[2]

This is disguised memoir, really, rather than a fictional “sketch.” Like Sassoon, Hodgson feels the need to formally renounce pastoral leisure and to seize control of his own return to action. Other subaltern-writers have tended toward the “pawn” analogy, or sought positions on the staff not necessarily for safety’s sake but for a sense of possessing more influence over their own destiny. Hodgson–and his fictional doppelganger–would have been sent back soon, but by going to the doctor soon he is able both to demonstrate and to act on his conviction that the front line is where he belongs.

This is a nice compliment to the poetic struggle above: Hodgson, like so many, is not so sure anymore about the glory of war or the worthiness of sacrifice. There is a lot to work out. But even if “glory” is a lie, and if there is more than a hint of unhappiness with his poetic inheritance and his political position, he has no doubt that his place is with his friends, and his men, come what may.

 

And those enlisted men, of course, have almost no control over their fate. Francis Ledwidge, recovering slowly from illness, injury, and exhaustion after the Gallipoli and Serbian campaigns, was marooned in Egypt for months before being sent home. Or not home–which would be restive Ireland–but Manchester. In a satisfying coincidence, Ledwidge, the now-published “peasant poet” is also musing, poet-wise, on his natural surroundings and the sacrifices of the soldier.

While Hodgson, who seems to be writing about bleak flat Flanders, was on the still-picturesque Somme, and returning for what promised to be a grim battle, Ledwidge, poet of County Meath, is coming back from the edge of a distant desert, admires the English green and pleasant lands to which he has been sent to convalesce.  Ledwidge writes to Lord Dunsany, today:

2nd Western General Hospital,
(A Ward), Lilly Lane, Moston,
Manchester, 20th April 1916

I arrived in England late last night. I cannot tell you how glad I was to return to western civilisation once again. Coming from Southhampton in the train, looking on England’s beautiful valleys all white with Spring, I thought indeed its freedom was worth all the blood I have seen flow. No wonder England has so-many ardent patriots.

I would be one of them myself did I not presume to be an Irish patriot. I am not yet very well, indeed I am far from it; nevertheless I am asking to be sent to Ireland soon. I remember you once said of Manchester that God only Sends fogs to it. You are quite right, but even the English fog is dear to me now and prized by me above Turkish sunshine, or Serbia’s beautiful autumn.

I expect to be home in the course of a week, if I succeed in pretending that my back is strong again. I am so accustomed to asking you to do me favours that I venture this one with no reluctance. I request you to find me clerical work in the Orderly Room for a while, as I am not fit for parades and can’t carry anything on my back. The doctors call my disease ‘cholecystitis’, that is the insane name the medical profession give a bad liver.[3]

The gall bladder, rather, but never mind. Ledwidge is close to home, and close to hopeful. Alas, however, too hopeful: given the political situation in Ireland, nationalists in the British ranks, however infirm, are not likely to be sent home; and he overestimates Dunsany’s influence–were they in the same battalion an officer’s patronage would be powerful indeed, but at a remove, a mere company officer can do little. And Dunsany, in Ireland, will soon have other things on his mind than the comfort of poetical, er, inferiors…

 

And finally, today, more evidence–devastatingly unkind and unjust evidence–that Walter de la Mare is indeed exerting himself on behalf of his friend Edward Thomas, trying to get him a Civil List Pension. Thomas was from a lower middle class background and had left Oxford without a degree: he has been a working writer since, with many friends in many different social positions. But he has very little in the way of savings and no direct lines to the wealthiest and most influential literary men.

Yesterday we learned that de la Mare might reach out to Eddie Marsh; today, we find that he has written to Edmund Gosse. These are both men who took an interest in the unpublished and financially independent (and young, and obscurely charming) Siegfried Sassoon… but they seem to have little interest in Thomas. Gosse might stick his neck out for promising youngsters of the officer class, but as for a corporal and prolific critic…

Confidential
17, Hanover Terrace,
Regent’s Park, N.W.
20 April 1916

My dear de la Mare

I shall be happy to speak to the Prime Minister, (at a more convenient season than now at the height of the crisis!) on the claims of Mr Thomas. I would, however, gently venture to warn you against the dangers of exaggerated language, which does more to harm than to help a candidate. I have not see much of Mr Thomas’ writing, which is often creditable, but I have met with little of his that deserved the epithets ‘rare’ and ‘beautiful.’ He wrote a monograph on Swinburne which was certainly neither the one nor the other!

Unless Mr Thomas has debts, I cannot think the moment well chosen for an appeal to the King’s bounty for him. He is a private, I suppose, in the Army, and his wife and children have therefore for the present some provision. I should have thought it would have been better to wait until peace was declared, when he would perhaps be in need of a special help before resuming his literary work…

Edmund Gosse[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The New Witness, 20 April 1916.
  2. Verse and Prose in Peace and War, 72-4.
  3. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 148.
  4. Poet to Poet, 220-1.

T.E. Hulme and Wilfred Owen Scribble On; Another Farewell for Vera Brittain; Siegfried Sassoon is In The Pink

Two of our foremost writers are up to the same old, same old today, while significant changes are upon two others.

T.E. Hulme is again doing double duty The New Age as both a philosopher (expounding further on his recent definition of “Religious Man”) and a pro-war-effort, anti-pacifist columnist. It’s not exacting thrilling reading… and so no more for lack of time.

And Wilfred Owen is, naturally, complaining to his mother of his daily vicissitudes–but at least he does so in a comical olde stylle:

Wednesday [10 February 1916] Hut B 11 [Romford]

Sweete my Mother,

How great peace of heart did your own beloved handwriting give me this morning! Mary’s card came (to the Hut, at least) simultaneously.

Thus I was all yesterday without a word. Very unhappy was I; nor did I find courage to write, even had I time, for I was Hut Orderly and drudged for 13 hours without a break…

This afternoon we all had a Throat Inspection by the Doctor. He passed everybody’s in the Hut but mine: says I have a granulated pharynx. (2 or 3 lumps on the back wall) You remember Dr. Mathews attacked these with Silver Nitrate in 1913. The Medical Officer says I should get them removed… I am going tomorrow morning to see the M.O. privately—to find out whether the army will pay expenses…[1]

 

Vera Brittain took the day off today, in order to go with her mother to see her brother Edward to his train. After numerous disappointments, reassignments, and “last leaves” that ended with him sent back to camp, Edward Brittain is at last bound for France. Vera will come to write about her emotions at sending her closest confidante off to where his best friend and her fiancé had been so recently and so pointlessly shot down, but she did not write today, a century back, and I thought it might make sense today to let a third party assess the situation.

Victor Richardson, the third of the “Three Musketeers” of Uppingham is now alone in England, his progress toward France delayed by a serious bout of meningitis in 1914. He has neither had Roland’s chance at suffering and a heroic demise nor Edward’s quasi-shameful series of military rejections. He is, for the moment, somewhat like Vera: left behind, and earnestly striving to close the experiential gulf.

On the 8th, Victor had written to Vera that he was “glad for Edward’s sake that he is going out now, as I think he wants to; but it is very difficult to be pleased that anyone one loves is going out there.” He would write again soon with reassurance, having parted with Edward yesterday, a century back, and leaving him “happy and cheerful.” Victor is extremely eager to reassure in any way he can, and tries to wring significance from Edward’s forced cheerfulness:

I am so glad of that, because I am sure all that sort of thing is so absolutely essential in an officer out there.

But this reassurance from a brother officer, to a sister, about her brother, soon turns to the inevitable subject of the vanished member of their circle.

I always think that with Roland, the gaiety and geniality of His personality must have been almost as great an asset as His devotion and thoroughness… Mrs Leighton said when I went there the week before last, that it was very extraordinary that we three should have been such great friends, as we were all so unlike each other. I don’t think I have ever realised the truth of this before. Another strange thing was that when we were all three together we often did not get on at all. It was the more strange because any two of us were linked more closely together by affection for the third. I am afraid I was largely to blame. Edward was always so much cleverer than I was, and I think I may have been a little jealous of him where Roland was concerned…

I hope you do not mind my writing like this about the three of us, but you know that our friendship is the most valued thing I have ever had, or ever will [have], and now that you are His representative it seems natural to talk to you about it.[2]

Vera’s thoughts, too, put Edward in relation to–and, in a way, subservient to–Roland. Upon learning of his pending departure, two days ago, she had written the following:

He would go just now, when we all feel the dreadfulness of it most. Had he gone six months ago, it would not have seemed like it does now; because then there was someone in the world who mattered so much beyond everything. But now–he is all I have, all there is to fall back upon… I cannot feel anything but an utter, utter weariness. There comes a time when nothing has power to move one much. There are limits to one’s capacity for realisation. I have reached those limits.[3]

This moment of despair is, of course, only a moment. She pulled herself together, today, to go with her mother to Charing Cross and see Edward off, “on one of those grey, unutterably dismal afternoons in which a London February seems to specialise.” A bad day. But she will remember Victor Richardson’s consolations–many letters, dinner every other week–with a gratitude that doesn’t often show up in the diary:

the healing balm of his unself-regarding sympathy… His unmitigated kindness, his gift of consolation and his imaginative pity for the sorrows of others, still impress me…[4]

 

A departure today for Siegfried Sassoon as well. I have been making fun of him from time to time (with help from Robert Graves) for the evident immaturity of his earlier poetry, and, lately, for his mood of cheerful, vapid, but nonetheless doom-expecting lyricism. He has not been writing much poetry, and there was “The Redeemer,” a one-off sally into bad-war negativity, but he has yet to really function as a war poet. There hasn’t been enough war, for one thing, but it’s really more that, while Sassoon has been assiduously posing in a poetical manner and writing beautiful bits of description in his diary along with the occasional verse, he hasn’t yet sat down and done what a poet must do–namely see, and write.

But today, a century back, he wrote “In the Pink,” taking a scene of billets life and a cliché of unforthcoming letters home, and turning it into a blunt, effective bit of trench realism.

In The Pink

So Davies wrote, ‘This leaves me in the pink’.
Then scrawled his name, ‘your loving sweetheart Willie’.
With crosses for a hug: he’d had a drink
Of rum and tea; and though the barn was chilly.
His blood ran warm, for once; he’d pay to spend;
Winter was passing; soon the year would mend.

He couldn’t sleep that night; stiff in the dark
He moaned and thought of Sundays at the farm.
When he’d go out as cheerful as a lark
In his best suit to wander arm in arm
With brown-eyed Gwen, and whisper in her ear
The simple, silly things she liked to hear.

And then he thought; to-morrow we must trudge
Up to the trenches, and my boots are rotten;
Six miles of stodgy clay and freezing sludge.
And everything but wretchedness forgotten.
To-night he’s in the pink, but soon he’ll die;
And still the war goes on; he don’t know why.

February 10[5]

Is the final couplet heavy-handed? Yes. The lapsing into (slight) dialect may not be to every reader’s taste, either. But it certainly is a change–this is apparently a plein air poem, taken down direct from life. Jean Moorcroft Wilson is convinced that Sassoon “was almost certainly inspired by the sight of the Machine-Gun Officer shivering in his blankets on the floor from a combination of alcoholic poisoning and cold feet, though he denied this.” (Meaning, I believe, that Sassoon denied the inspiration, rather than the Machine-Gun officer denying his addiction and/or moral failings.) As well he (whoever “he” is) would–drunkenness, implied fear, and the use of know-nothing contractions do not befit the officer class, whether on a trench floor or in a poem.

This is not a major poetic breakthrough, but it is nevertheless a significant departure from his prior form. Only once had Sassoon really left lyric poetry (usually in its flowery, navel-gazing form) behind, and then to write parody (of Masefield, which, as Graves astutely noted, “turned into rather good Masefield–” but the point stands). Here we have no such guise for the poet, and yet neither is he identical with the subject of the poem.

I’ve expounded upon my pet prosodic theme of “hammer-blows” before, and I find here that Wilson is very close to the same metaphor, writing that the final couplet (which even Edward Thomas has recently put to similar purposes) is used “to drive home the ironic point–” that point being the distance between the simplicity of the soldier and the speaker’s (or poet’s) point of view. It’s really not much of a poem–but, again, it’s a trench scene, it’s fairly honest, and it’s real. It’s the first solid glimpse of an escape route away from lyric solipsism, a first turn down the long mine tunnel toward the unexpected explosion of real war poetry…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 379-80.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 228-9.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 315-6.
  4. Testament of Youth, 249-55.
  5. Diaries, 59.
  6. See Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 233.

Edward Thomas Sharpens His Pen; The Death of Sergeant Calvert

Disease continues to ravage Romford. Wilfred Owen has fought off the scourge of measles and the horrors of quarantine, but now his fellow Artists’ Rifles cadet Edward Thomas is sick. Away from camp on a pass, Thomas fell ill at his parents’ house in London.

But not with measles, however, or anything terribly serious. Thomas seems to have spent a day or two immobile, exhausted, subjected to bible readings by his mother–nothing worse.

And so, away from his duties, he has been writing. Today, a letter to Walter de la Mare, in which he complains of being ill and of having been passed over for promotion. Another–of tomorrow–to Eleanor Farjeon is much the same:

My dear Eleanor, I have been kept here with a chill. These verses, however bad, won’t tell you the wretchedness of it. Except the Ash Grove I wrote because I couldn’t read or talk or sleep or rest during the day. I am better now, but fit for nothing…[1]

Ah yes, the verses. It’s not clear exactly which earlier poems he is sending to Farjeon, but he was working on at least three very different poems today, a century back. One, finished by tomorrow and perhaps begun today, is a harsh meditation on his troubled relationship with his father. The poem is usually referred to by its first line, “I may come near loving you.” Its second line? “When you are dead.”

Given his illness, the recent row, the bible-reading, and the fact that God-the-Father seems to be on his mind (on which below), it’s not too surprising that Thomas feels the need to lash out in epistolary verse. The letter, however, was not sent, and we’ll use that as our excuse to read the two other poems he completed today, a century back.

Out of the misery of illness came “The Ash Grove,” a decidedly unmiserable poem.

Half of the grove stood dead, and those that yet lived made
Little more than the dead ones made of shade.
If they led to a house, long before they had seen its fall:
But they welcomed me; I was glad without cause and delayed.

Scarce a hundred paces under the trees was the interval–
Paces each sweeter than sweetest miles–but nothing at all,
Not even the spirits of memory and fear with restless wing,
Could climb down in to molest me over the wall

That I passed through at either end without noticing.
And now an ash grove far from those hills can bring
The same tranquillity in which I wander a ghost
With a ghostly gladness, as if I heard a girl sing

The song of the Ash Grove soft as love uncrossed,
And then in a crowd or in distance it were lost,
But the moment unveiled something unwilling to die
And I had what most I desired, without search or desert or cost.

Despite–or because of–his illness, Thomas is able to think back to a day in the past and (with a little help from his notebooks) draw from it a spirit of beauty and peace. As Edna Longley puts it, this is not so much the Romantic “emotion recalled in tranquility” as “tranquility recalled in tranquility.”[2]

The best curt double question to put to ourselves here is “well, when was that tranquility–and what emotion is avoided by its invocation?” In other words, was today, a century back, just a day when Thomas could finally versify something from his notebooks–when he could create, from the ruins of the day, another moment entirely? Or, rather, is he writing about some other, preoccupying  desire, some other impinging fear?

I don’t think there is any answer within the poem–and no certain answer at all. But it’s worth noting how strongly constructed this tranquility is. The barrier, though invisible, is very much there: it must be crossed at both ends, and it protects the speaker as he walks the length of the grove. And if we dwell on the “ghostly” memory we must still admit that the emphasis is not on the ghost. This is not one of Hardy’s sardonic, irony-bearing messengers-from-the-beyond. No–we’ve been brought a tune, a simple tune (Thomas, a lover and singer of folk songs, was fond of the Welsh air from which the poem takes its name), and a reminder of the possibility of love. The beauty found in that ash grove, and recalled now, is more than just a happy memory of nature. It’s a call back to himself, to live…

And then there is “February Afternoon.” Also written today, a century back, this poem is unlike most of Thomas’s others in that it moves clearly and heavily from one mental state to another. If it has nothing to tell us, really, about the beauty and stillness of “The Ash Grove,” it does seem to address the ghostly hint of fear and death and change at its close.

In “February Afternoon” we begin rooted–a millennium rooted–to a spot, watching the birds and feeling the earth. The rhymes and syntax and vocabulary are all simple–until they’re not.

Men heard this roar of parleying starlings, saw,
A thousand years ago even as now,
Black rooks with white gulls following the plough
So that the first are last until a caw
Commands that last are first again,–a law
Which was of old when one, like me, dreamed how
A thousand years might dust lie on his brow
Yet thus would birds do between hedge and shaw.

So what have we got in the opening octave of the sonnet? (Yes, yes indeed: as Thomas teased Farjeon, the thing is a sonnet, although an English reader might miss that fact entirely. It’s a sometimes-restrictive form which Thomas generally avoids. But he’s the master here, producing a smooth, appealing poem–but nothing too fancy. Nature is simple and lovely and so is the poet’s way of handling it.) Those parleying starlings are an unlikely little trill at the beginning, but after that there are only a handful of polysyllabics and a preponderance of salt-of-the-earth ancient English words, suiting the poem’s apparent topic. Time moves slow out in the county…

Time swims before me, making as a day
A thousand years, while the broad ploughland oak
Roars mill-like and men strike and bear the stroke
Of war as ever, audacious or resigned,
And God still sits aloft in the array
That we have wrought him, stone-deaf and stone-blind.

So: to be more specific, we have here a Petrarchan sonnet with an irregular last sestet, thank you very much–and the irregularity is used to great effect. We are almost lulled by all of those curt masculine rhymes, those common verbs and old English nature words, and we don’t realize what has begun in the first three lines of the sestet until the poem is all but over: we’ve been set up!

The thousand years, the day, have led us to the poem’s sharp and swift movement. Not the physical movement we might expect (Where did the birds go? They’ve flown off as if a gun had gone off nearby…) but an intellectual turn-and-thrust.

No more monosyllables, and no more nature: war is Latinate and French, audacious and resigned; the oak is no symbol of ancient strength but a roaring mill (and what Englishwoman or Englishman does not hear “Satanic” try to elbow its way into a mill-verse?); and the humble stones that might once have merely turned the plough have become terrifying adjectives, hurled at God.

Knowing that Thomas writes to–or rather at–his father tomorrow, that he has summoned the ash grove to keep himself from harm, it’s hard not to see this sonnet as not just a war poem but an emphatic anti-war protest. Indeed, from the quiet-mannered Thomas it’s almost a cri de coeur. Not quite, perhaps–but this surely isn’t subtle. Rarely does Thomas resort to the sonnet, but when he does he uses its form the way it is meant to be used: to take your breath away with the swift violence of the conclusion. (It’s subtle only by comparison with the more typical English sonnet, in which the last couplet seems destined for even more heavy-handed turn-and-thrust, hammer-blow endings. We will see a good number of these, in the years to come.)

Edward Thomas has always been an agnostic-tending-toward-atheism. He rarely wrote of God, and generally avoided political poetry. So again it seems pointless to resist the war’s weight pressing down on the dagger-point of one day’s biographical fallacy. This is a war poem, a revision of his previous disinterest in things divine. Is it perhaps about dad, too? Perhaps, especially when we factor in the illness, the bible-reading, and the recent spat… but this need not be a Freudian misstep–it is (mostly) what it appears to be: a poem in which An Atheist Addresses God, in Wartime.

Once, Thomas has been annoyed by that strain of atheism which preoccupies itself with a hatred of the world’s ways, which broods on the omniscient cruelty of fate. You know–Thomas Hardy‘s thing. And, once, Thomas had found Hardy’s grim fate-deity oppressive, “tyrannous.” But history has caught up to the dour Victorian Jeremiah and proved him wise. Thomas doesn’t really want to take part in this debate, but as an honest poet he is almost forcibly delivered of a sonnet. The war has “made Hardy’s ‘God’ more credible.”[3] Oh, yes indeed.

 

Calvert-886As an addendum, today, we have an update on the fatal accident reported by Robert Graves and discussed here on February 1st. It now seems very likely indeed that the sergeant of the Royal Irish Rifles was indeed William Calvert. Thanks to a reader–and to the efforts of so many who digitize and tag so many old records and clippings–we can add these two bits of information to the tally:

First, from wikitree (available here) we have a picture of Sergeant Calvert and some basic information about his life. He was from Belfast, and had come to the British Army from the Ulster Volunteer Forces, one of the new militias that had sprung up in opposition to discussions of Home Rule for Ireland; he was the eldest of four brothers, all in uniform.

The clincher, adding both pathos and more bitter irony to the nameless account in Good-Bye to All That, is a single line penned in the battalion diary (many thanks, again to the reader who sent this on to me) for January 31st: together with a lieutenant, Sergeant Calvert was “sent to base to assist in training of reinforcements.”

And the next day, showing off for those reinforcement before the bombing instructor arrived, the sergeant mishandled a live grenade, killing Rifleman Young and mortally wounding himself. He died today, a century back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 187.
  2. Longley, Annotated Collected Poems, 272-5.
  3. Longley, 274.

Edward Thomas Pens an Unlikely Vision of Splendor; Donald Hankey’s Beloved Captain; Bombs and Games With Rowland Feilding; Roland Leighton on Tears and Desire

Edward Thomas is still writing–another war poem today, a century back.
Out of the wood of thoughts that grows by night
To be cut down by the sharp axe of light,—
Out of the night, two cocks together crow,
Cleaving the darkness with a silver blow:
And bright before my eyes twin trumpeters stand,
Heralds of splendour, one at either hand,
Each facing each as in a coat of arms:
The milkers lace their boots up at the farms.

This is “Cock-crow,” a splendidly condensed poem of preparation. We have the poet–and soldier–in the long watches of the night, the glories of chivalry-inflected combat and the splendid antagonisms of nature… and then that curious last line. Less is more, sometimes, and critics love the gnarled and the ambiguous.

“At one level,” Edna Longley writes, “Cock-Crow reviews the process that has led to his enlistment.” It does–but it’s about as forthcoming as his letters. And it is also an homage–the cock crows in many poems, including Hardy‘s Men Who March Away–and a bit of a misdirection. This, after all, is the vision of a man startled from sleep. Thomas, awake and sharpening his pen, would never be the herald-envisioning sort. Coleridge a century on would need to lace his boots up and get to work…

So if it is not really in the heroic tradition, is “Cock-Crow” then a polished lump of Modern gold? Donald Davie found the poem to be a “small impersonal masterpiece,” with all the “‘hardness’ and ‘dryness’ that T.E. Hulme had asked for, but this seems to be belied by the last line. It’s a hammer blow, alright–the concluding, (too-)perfect pentameter–but one delivered by a subtler sort of craftsman.

Longley wisely reserves judgment, describing the “rhythmic momentum to which the last line may be climax, anti-climax, or reality-check.” It’s all three, but especially the last two. As Longley also notes, “this is the first poem of Thomas’s to feature a martial call.” Again, yes:  but that call is allowed to die away even before the short poem has reached its end. The hammer blow glances off, the vision fades.[1]

Thomas laces up his boots–gingerly–to return to drill, and the milkers go on about their work. But the daily life of the farm isn’t merely a “reality check”–it’s a remembrance of what he has turned away from, what he has given up. He wanted the farm, he longed for that life, but he knew it wasn’t in him. We must think of the soldier’s boots instead, and the milker’s boots do not stand for the “simple life” or “England,” but rather the life Thomas left behind when he went for a soldier.

There will be marching away, now, for Thomas–his ankle is mending, again–and no milking. This is the last poem he will write for quite some time.

 

Donald Hankey is a member of K1, the “First Hundred Thousand” volunteers to answer Lord Kitchener’s call. His battalion, 7/Rifle Brigade, has been gradually introduced to combat–a sensible policy. But there are no safe spots on the line. The battalion is part of the 14th Division, which has just been swapped into the line at Hooge, in the southern Ypres salient.

This is a familiar spot: after the explosion of a huge (for this stage of the war, at least) men of the 4/Middlesex–a battalion in Billy Congreve‘s 3rd Division–had seized elevated positions around the crater, and the 3rd was rotated to rest. So the New Army men of the 14th Division are now not only being trusted to hold the line, but to hold an active segment, where there is a high likelihood of a German counter-attack.

There was none today, but a more quotidian horror took its toll. Billy Congreve has experienced the large German trench mortar known as the Minenwerfer; which lobbed a missile so large that it was often referred to as an “Aerial torpedo.” Now it was the Rifle Brigade’s turn. Corporal Hankey of C company was unscathed. But D company took the brunt.

This had been Hankey’s original company, in which a man named Ronald Hardy had been his first platoon commander. Hankey was no schoolboy–he was thirty, had himself been an officer, and was shortly promoted sergeant–but he idolized the “Beloved Captain” from the first.

He came in the early days, when we were still at recruit drills under the hot September sun. Tall, erect, smiling: so we first saw him, and so he remained to the end.

And the end came today, a century back:

There was not one of us but would gladly have died for him. We longed for the chance to show him that. We weren’t heroes. We never dreamed about the V.C. But to save the captain we would have earned it ten times over, and never have cared a button whether we got it or not. We never got the chance, worse luck. It was all the other way.

We were holding some trenches which were about as unhealthy as trenches could be. The Bosches were only a few yards away, and were well supplied with trench mortars. We hadn’t got any at that time. Bombs and air torpedoes were dropping round us all day. Of course the captain was there. It seemed as if he could not keep away. A torpedo fell into the trench, and buried some of our chaps. The fellows next to them ran to dig them out. Of course he was one of the first. Then came another torpedo in the same place. That was the end.

Hankey will soon sit down to write the essay “The Beloved Captain,” from which this description was taken. It is very much worth reading, for two reasons: as a writer’s unjaundiced–and, indeed, frankly idealized–depiction of excellent small-unit leadership, and also for its insight into Donald Hankey, who does not fit very easily into our categories–neither blithe Public School boy (though he was, at Rugby) nor laboring enlisted man (though he had chosen that too); neither happy warrior nor incipient disenchantee.

Coming from a very young man from the lower reaches of Britain’s still-solid class system, this might provoke something like cringing resentment and doubt:

Somehow, gentle though he was, he was never familiar. He had a kind of innate nobility which marked him out as above us. He was not democratic. He was rather the justification for aristocracy. We all knew instinctively that he was our superior—a man of finer temper than ourselves, a “toff” in his own right. I suppose that that was why he could be so humble without loss of dignity. For he was humble too, if that is the right word, and I think it is. No trouble of ours was too small for him to attend to. When we started route marches, for instance, and our feet were blistered and sore, as they often were at first, you would have thought that they were his own feet from the trouble he took.

This is idolizing, if not idolatry, and strange in the mouth of a man from the same class, masquerading in a sergeant’s faux homespun. But it’s not all about class. The practical military matter of keeping feet healthy takes–and not nearly for the last time, here–now takes a religious turn. Hankey is a religious man, and intends to minister to the poor after the war, but even many casual Christians found that foot inspections provoked a remembrance of the gospels. Hankey works slowly around to it:

Of course after the march there was always an inspection of feet. That is the routine. But with him it was no mere routine. He came into our rooms, and if anyone had a sore foot he would kneel down on the floor and look at it as carefully as if he had been a doctor. Then he would prescribe, and the remedies were ready at hand, being borne by the sergeant. If a blister had to be lanced he would very likely lance it himself there and then, so as to make sure that it was done with a clean needle and that no dirt was allowed to get in. There was no affectation about this, no striving after effect. It was simply that he felt that our feet were pretty important, and that he knew that we were pretty careless. So he thought it best at the start to see to the matter himself. Nevertheless, there was in our eyes something almost religious about this care for our feet. It seemed to have a touch of the Christ about it, and we loved and honored him the more.

So: the natural aristocrat’s claim to lesser men’s allegiance, and Christ-like humility and concern. To this potent mix is added another familiar ingredient, namely the swaggering charisma of the prefect or team captain:

He had a smile for almost everyone; but we thought that he had a different smile for us. We looked for it, and were never disappointed. On parade, as long as we were trying, his smile encouraged us. Off parade, if we passed him and saluted, his eyes looked straight into our own, and his smile greeted us. It was a wonderful thing, that smile of his. It was something worth living for, and worth working for.

So much so that when Hardy was promoted and replaced by a martinet, Hankey insisted on transferring as well. He was not permitted to go with his beloved captain, but since he would not serve in the same place under a lesser leader, he moved to a different platoon and gave up his sergeant’s stripes. (He has since been promoted corporal, and now suspects that he will soon be sent back to England to take up his old rank and class identity.)

So Hankey was not in the same company when the inevitable happened.

We knew that we should lose him. For one thing, we knew that he would be promoted. It was our great hope that some day he would command the company. Also we knew that he would be killed. He was so amazingly unself-conscious. For that reason we knew that he would be absolutely fearless. He would be so keen on the job in hand, and so anxious for his men, that he would forget about his own danger. So it proved. He was a captain when we went out to the front. Whenever there was a tiresome job to be done, he was there in charge. If ever there were a moment of danger, he was on the spot.

So the Beloved Captain was killed today, acting as a brave and good captain should. It was only a routine bombardment, but it was deadly enough. Is it a total waste?

But he lives. Somehow he lives. And we who knew him do not forget. We feel his eyes on us. We still work for that wonderful smile of his. There are not many of the old lot left now; but I think that those who went West have seen him. When they got to the other side I think they were met. Someone said: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” And as they knelt before that gracious pierced Figure, I reckon they saw nearby the captain’s smile. Anyway, in that faith let me die, if death should come my way; and so, I think, shall I die content.[2]

The Beloved Captain seems to move, in death, from idolization almost to idolatry–can a (presumably) Protestant Captain (and a man whose job requires him not only to take loving care o fhis own men but to direct the killing of others) be a saint? Well. But this is, I think, a good reminder of a foreground fact of Christianity that can be easy for the non-devout or secular to overlook: God became a man.

Perhaps this theological literalism is a bit unfair to Hankey. The fulsome Victorianism of the prose–he is, after all, eulogizing a brave officer, not writing a theological tract–begins to obscure his point. This man was not a saint, but he was a brilliant leader of men, and he inspired in his men the desire for greater efforts. Efforts that will bring them in better stead to the pierced Figure on “the other side?” Well… that’s not for me to say. But it will make them better soldiers.

But then again this is not the sort of battlefield that will be carried by elan, by the spirited charge of men who will not disappoint the brave man who leads them. It’s a war of attrition, and artillery is not lightning: it strikes, as well as it can, in the same place, again and again. He who rushes into danger runs the greatest risk of the second salvo.

 

Roland is at last in receipt of Vera‘s anguished missive:

Vllth Corps Headquarters, France, 23 July 1915
I am so very sorry to have made you anxious about me, but I hope you have got a letter by now.

Alas no. Tomorrow!

The difficulty is not so much to find time to write as to get letters sent off. When we are on the move as we have been so much lately the postal service is temporarily stopped and we cannot either send or receive any letters for perhaps a week. Hinc illae lacrimae

Very nice: “Hence these tears.” This was already proverbial under Augustus–an old cliché. But the original context (in one of Terence’s comedies) is funerary.

Our bright boy is now in demand:

My C.O. came round yesterday and wanted to have me back again with the Battalion. The Camp Commandant wants to keep me here. So I at present don’t quite know what is going to happen. I prefer this to wandering over France doing nothing particular, but on the other hand don’t want to miss any real fighting.[3]

 

Finally today, a brief note from Rowland Feilding. I would be remiss if I failed to note yet another accident…

July 23, 1915. Bethune

Yesterday was a bad day here in Bethune. In the morning, at bombing practice, one of our officers was
wounded—slightly. In the afternoon, while practising with a trench mortar, three were killed and four or five
wounded, the former including Mitchell, of the Black Watch, who took on Carpentier, the French boxer, last year.

But it gets worse. There is, of course, a good reason for why an amateur army is rushing so recklessly to train and equip itself.

In the evening there were in the town 128 casualties to our troops from shell-fire, including three men of ours.
A great many casualties were caused by a shell which burst in the “Ecole des jeunes filles,” which we use as a barrack. I passed the door with John Ponsonby as they were bringing them out. Certainly, this place is becoming very unhealthy, and I wish the civilians would clear out. Yesterday, I am told, a woman and two children were killed.

It is worth remembering: the Germans have bombed England, and England will return the favor, but the casualties from these primitive escapades will be relatively low. The lines are in Belgium and France, and it is the citizens of those (allied) countries who are suffering the most.

The old man and his wife with whom I am billeted still cling on, though I doubt if they will stand it much longer.
The poor old lady—a dear and very fat—sits down palpitating, each time the shells begin to fly, and counts
them.

A sad picture of normal life in an artillery war. And how does the British Army handle it?

Our artillery has been retaliating pretty severely the last two nights, and to-day nobody would have been surprised at a super-exhibition of “frightfulness,” but so far, to-day, the enemy has not fired a shell into the town. In fact, we have been having a boxing competition; and, to-morrow, we have a horse-show.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 257.
  2. "The Beloved Captain" is available here.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 133-4.
  4. War Letters to a Wife, 28-9.

Thomas Hardy Voices the Silent Bells; Henry Williamson Waxes Churlish and Ungrateful

Here’s one way to ask for presents from home:

P Coy. Camp Hill Camp Crowboro.                            18th. Oct 1914

Dear Mother, we have been very busy lately so you haven’t received so may letters as perhaps you would like to… About that lamp. As we burn candles (which we have to buy ourselves) in the tent, any little oil lamp would be a blessing. Some have electric lights in the other tents, & others hurricane lamps. We have to burn candles, so a little oil lamp would be a blessing.[1] Still, as you are uninclined to get one as I particularly asked you, perhaps I had better write to other people for it. So please don’t trouble any more about it. I will arrange for it & any other little necessities of life that help to improve the existence here.

There’s one more little sally, too: we might be sent out soon as replacements, and then we’d mostly be killed, but anyway, since we might leave at a moment’s notice don’t worry if you don’t hear anything.[2] Bizarre.

This is, of course, Henry Williamson. My fascination with his petulant, desperate, obnoxious letters to his mother from the training camp of the London Rifles is in part a reaction to the starkness of the printed words–how strange to find, in a neat little modern book, these old, scrawled, private, letters, carrying such outrageous remarks so placidly. But, in case you, dear reader, are wondering why one very young soldier’s epistolary affronts merit so much mention (well, perhaps “merit” is not quite the right word), I hasten to add that Williamson himself will take up the question. His novelization of all this in the immense A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight will brood at great length on the self-absorption, loneliness, and troubled parental relations of his younger self. The war, predictably, will accelerate–in fits and starts–the agonizing crawl toward maturity of young Henry/Phillip Maddison.

The real boy’s letters are, in a way, simply dumb: whether they spit this odd sort of defiance or flex and preen with tyro bravado they can’t tell us much of his state of mind in any progressive or imperfect sense. They’re gestures, historical acts, instantaneous moments of communication, much less amenable to any “this is representative of his state of mind” claim than the more artfully composed missives we more often read.

But Williamson will return–and in greater numbers of pages–to that state of mind, and dwell there for many months… By the end of October, Phillip Maddison will be in action.

 

Thomas Hardy wrote a sonnet today–patriotic (or pro-allies), to be sure–but far more characteristic of both his recent prosody and manner than his first pro-war effort.

On the Belgian Expatriation

October 18, 1914

I dreamt that people from the Land of Chimes
Arrived one autumn morning with their bells,
To hoist them on the towers and citadels
Of my own country, that the musical rhymes
Rung by them into space at meted times
Amid the market’s daily stir and stress,
And the night’s empty star-lit silentness,
Might solace souls of this and kindred climes.
Then I awoke; and lo, before me stood
The visioned ones, but pale and full of fear;
From Bruges they came, and Antwerp, and Ostend,
No carillons in their train. Foes of mad mood
Had shattered these to shards amid the gear
Of ravaged roof, and smouldering gable-end.[3]
It’s a good poem, I think. There was something almost callous in the prosy letter that let us know how much was lost with the (partial) of Rheims. But here Hardy goes to that dream-state that he used so effectively in Satires of Circumstance, while wearing his atheistical church-love more lightly (or, dare I say, more poetically). The “Hun” has smashed the old church bells of Belgium, silenced their chimes. There is an implicit appeal–are we not to fight for these miserable refugees on our shores?–and explicit loss: the bells are smashed. But it would be prosaic and (insert here the adjectival form of “of-or-pertainting-to-officious/official-letters-to-The-Times“) to dwell on the material loss of the ruined churches. Instead the sound of the carillons echoes through the dream and is silenced. There’s the real art of the appeal, or the appeal of art. Peal!
No, no. In fact, though, the sonnet’s best punches are all landed at the very beginning of the last tercet, with that double sense of carillon–the medieval “train” that trails behind the refugees, bereft of their culture treasures, and the steam trains that bring them, wretched, to their English homes in exile. No need for the last few lines. They are good solid blows (not quite the devastating hammer blows that end the best late-war poems of horror and fury–give me about three years–but solid nonetheless) but it is the silent bells that work here, not the burning roofs of Reims or Belgium, their fires kept burning eternally in the most straightforward newsprint propaganda.

References and Footnotes

  1. This is correctly transcribed, at least on my end (from the printed version in Anne Williamson's book rather than a facsimile) and lovely evidence of Williamson's limited powers at this point--of concentration, perhaps, more than literary variety.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson, 30.
  3. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/248474