A Quiet Day, Siegfried Sassoon at a Barrie Play, and Cynthia Asquith Opts for Genius

A quiet day, today.

For John Lucy, still holding the line near Cambrai, it was only “fairly quiet… except for bombing in the main trench.”[1] The battle, in other words, is falling back from fury to the more subdued viciousness of confused, close-quarters attrition.

 

For Siegfried Sassoon, still on leave, it was a quiet day in town. After his weekend with Robert Nichols and then some disappointing hunting, he lunched at leisure and then went to the theater with Robbie Ross to see Barrie’s Dear Brutus.[2] Yes, one of Barrie’s not-Peter-Pan plays. But it sounds like it should’ve struck a chord: “The setting is a country-house with a garden bathed in midsummer moonlight, owned by an aged Puck known as Lob.”

Lob? That Lob? Well, no, not exactly that Lob. But the play also features an enchanted wood, an unhappy artist, and “a disdainful female aristo,” and it shows Barrie’s interest in a less literal sort of male “arrested development…”[3]

 

For Cynthia Asquith, today brought yet another encounter with Bernard Freyberg, hero of the Naval Division. I think she thinks she can’t really figure him out, even though she can. Freyberg is a talented soldier, exceptionally brave and neither too brilliant to bear the shackles of army life not too dull to blaze his own path into the higher ranks still occupied almost exclusively by pre-war officer… but it’s doubtful that he is a “genius…”

Wednesday, 5th December

…I went to stay one night at Seaford House—lunching with Margot and Lord Howard de Walden. Freyberg called for me there and we dined at the Trocadero, and sat till late listening to music. He interested me enormously. He has the stamp of a high calling which I have hardly ever recognised in anyone. I believe him to be a genius. He said he would ‘do his damndest’ to forget me when he went out. I have never had the type of admirer who hates the ‘yoke’ and I respect him for it, and yet he wants the friendship side of the relationship and complains of loneliness. But I don’t think he should be degraded into the role of a ‘sentimental friend’, even if it could be more than that—which is out of the question—he could never ‘share a woman’. This he said: he also often says it would never do for him to marry, he considers it ruin to a soldier’s career in peacetime. I adore his consuming ambition, and long for him to get a division. He would be comparatively safe then. As a brigadier I’m afraid he exposes himself as much as any subaltern. I am so afraid he may get broken by fighting with some stupid superior—he would never obey what he thought a mistaken order. He swears suicide if he is either maimed or a failure. There is a distinct touch of the melodramatic in him, but I don’t mind that, and I like his grimness varied by startling gentleness…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. There's a Devil in the Drum, 386.
  2. Diaries, 197.
  3. See here.
  4. Diaries, 376-7.

Isaac Rosenberg is Feeling Poorly; Siegfried Sassoon Posts Robert Graves; Ivor Gurney on Severn and Somme; Olaf Stapledon on a Pleasure-Loving Prophet; The Irish Guards Break a Truce

All the poets are busy as bees, today. First, Isaac Rosenberg got a rare letter into the mail–to Eddie Marsh, of course. Each man is different, and Rosenberg may be both sickly and hypochondriac… yet it’s hard to see the predicaments of the soldier–as opposed to the officer–in Rosernberg’s worries. There is no question of leave, or of getting books published… Rosenberg has written a tremendous poem and learned that it has been published in a reputable periodical–but that news goes by in a line, and his lungs take up an entire paragraph… can Marsh get him away from the army?

[Postmarked January 18, 1917]
My Dear Marsh

My sister wrote me she would be writing to you. She’d got the idea of my being in vile health from you’re letter addressed to Dempsey St, and naturally they at home exaggerated things in their minds. Perhaps though it is not so exaggerated. That my health is undermined I feel sure of; but I have only lately been medically examined, and absolute fitness was the verdict. My being transfered may be the consequence of my reporting sick or not; I don’t know for certain. But though this work does not entail half the hardships of the trenches, the winter and the conditions naturally tells on me, having once suffered from weak lungs, as you know. I have been in the trenches most of the 8 months Ive been here, and the continual damp and exposure is whispering to my old friend consumption, and he may hear the words they say in time. I have nothing outwardly to show, yet, but I feel it inwardly. I don’t know what you could do in a case like this; perhaps I could be made use of as a draughtsman at home; or something else in my own line, or perhaps on munitions. My new address is

Pte I R 22311
7 Platoon F. Coy
40th Division
Works Battallion
B.E.F.

I wrote a poem some while ago which Bottomley liked so, and I want you to see it, but Im writing in most awkward conditions and can’t copy it now. ‘Poetry’ of Chicago printed a couple of my things and are paying me. I should think you find the Colonial Office interesting particularly after the war.

I hope however it leaves you leisure for literature; for me its the great thing.

Yours sincerely

Isaac Rosenberg[1]

 

So there we have some sharp contrast for another friend-of-Eddie, a man whose illness has brought him six months of hunting, writing, and semi-military idleness, with no objections from bureaucracies or medical boards. Siegfried Sassoon, today, is playing friend and writer, poet and patron. First the observation, then the work:

January 18

Gulls were flapping and calling; the tide was low; the sea level; ships—one full-rigged—and steamers and a liner slipped along, grey ghosts across the water, and the houses ashore were grey ghosts too—only they did not move. So I stood on the sandflats between the two with a quiet cloudy hazy sky overhead and a little frosty wind blowing the smoke from the north. Then the sun began to come out, as I stood on the huge, green-stained sewer-pipes, and the mud-flats were beaten-silver with level water creeping in as level as a sheet, and across the Mersey mouth the sea was shining pale coppery-gold. Then the sun went in again, and the arena of sand and sea was drab. And some soldiers flapped and wagged their signal-flags—tiny figures hundreds of yards away along the shore; crusted with melting ice.

This afternoon I sent Robert’s new poems to the Chiswick Press. Only nine of them—but the best work he has done, or will do for some time, I am afraid.

A Captain from the Second Battalion, on leave, was here last night. He said the soldiers in France regard the end of the war in the summer as certain. It will be a successful Push and victory, or else—failure and a patched-up peace![2]

This will be Goliath and David, a small private edition of Graves’s recent poems, and this will not be Sassoon’s last about-face on the likely outcomes of the war.

 

I suppose we might also have had updates on Edward Thomas or Wilfred Owen, but nothing much is going on with either of them. It’s only all the rest of the major war poets will all be represented today. I need Chrissie Hynde to ask the crowd if they can handle another guitar hero…

In this case, the next poet up is Ivor Gurney, writing once again to Marion Scott. The letter begins with a long, rambling discussion of poetry good and bad, dropping many familiar names. But then come two poems, sandwiched (pun intended) around the inevitable discussion of parcels, which are so much more important to enlisted men of limited means than they are to officers. But many war poets actually in the combat zone are more likely to think of home than the dangers and vicissitudes of their days. Poetry isn’t “escape,” but it is an act of meaningful remembering… and Gurney on the Somme resides in an intensely idyllic Gloucestershire.

 

Song

Only the wanderer
Knows Englands graces
Or can anew see clear
Familiar faces

And who loves Joy as he (Who loves fair joy as he?)
That dwells in-shadows?
Do not forget me quite,
O Severn meadows.

Your brown bread parcel came three days ago on the 7th. It was tres bon. Bread and biscuits first rate and most acceptable; particularly as the rations did not turn up one day. How good it was to get bread not dust dry to eat.  What is in the stuff to keep it grateful to eat?

 

West Country

Spring comes soon to Maisemore
And Spring comes sweet.
With bird-songs and blue skies,
On gay dancing feet
But she is such a shy lady
I fear we’ll never meet.

Some day round a comer
Where the hedge foams white
I’ll find Spring a-sleeping
In the young-crescent night
And seize her and make her
Yield all her delight.

But theres a glad story
That’s yet to be told.
Here’s grey Winters bareness
And no-shadowed cold

O Spring, with your music
Your blue, green, and gold!
Come shame this grey wisdom
With laughter and gold.

All these lispings of childhood do not prevent terrific strafing on the left, where Hell is apparently combined with the angry gods to make things thoroughly uncomfortable.

With Sassoon and Thomas it usually seems as if the poetry comes from an entirely different part of the brain, even when poetry and prose share the same notebook sheet. But Gurney’s poems-in-letters are remarkable documents. It’s true, of course, that no written work is historically “immediate:” everything is filtered as it is written down, even if only seconds elapse. But rarely do we get poetry explicitly written during a bombardment, and Gurney’s letter seems to present military experience and poetic desire as a sort of experiment in counterpoint. Dreams of Severn meadows, and thundering death along the Somme…

But Gurney is thinking of his poetry, now. He is focused, and he has direct questions for Scott, asking to be compared to his friend Will Harvey, languishing in a POW camp. And not his immediate heroes, the Georgians? Perhaps not yet.

Would you mind telling me candidly sincerely as possible, what you think of my things were they collected in a book and compared to F W Hs? Personally, I think there is nothing of mine so good as “Flanders”. And also, perhaps, “If we return”, but outside those, I think my things are better on the whole and more poetical. Do you think there is too much regret in mine? His book has a fine spirit, is mine too much the confession of being unwillingly a soldier? Is there too much of a whine? I would not be out of it — right out of it — for anything: this gives me a right to talk and walk with braver men than myself and an insight into thousands of characters and a greater Power over Life, and more Love. But if I get knocked out—with the conviction sometimes of being able to write the finest sort of songs — then “deevil a ceevil word to God frae a gentleman like me.” But it is not good to let this appear since the forfeit of Life is paid by the noblest so often. After all (I take pride in it) there are not many chronic dyspeptics writing verse at the —. I think this is a title of Pride, and gives me excuse to be a little selfish…[3]

 

Even the non-poets are deep in poetry today, a century back. Olaf Stapledon, idle with his ambulances in Belgium, is spurred by poetry to write perhaps his most effusive and sensual letter yet.

… I have been sitting in front of the fire reading Walt Whitman, that astounding boisterous pleasure-loving prophet! I have hardly read him at all till now, & now it is a time to do so… His stuff seems haphazard and undisciplined, but it is fine vigorous stuff whether one likes it or not. He seems rather obsessed by sex… Yet the tone is as pure as the blue sky. And his obsession only consists in reading sex into rocks, atoms & stars…

This, actually, is an influence on Stapledon’s writing that now seems obvious. Whitman! Of course. But as far as today, a century back, Whitman seems less a shaper of his worldview and prose style than a goad and a license to write deliriously to Agnes of such topics as “your outstretched bare arm,” many repetitions of the word “beautiful,” and a full physical accounting of himself. Oh, the body electric!

 

Enough of poets and their hesitant pride, dreamers and their passions. Shall we close with humor, and history?

Alan Milne is thirty-five, today, and still recovering from trench fever. But he had a nice birthday present in the form of a note from none other than J.M. Barrie, informing the Punch contributor and sidelined signal officer that would be willing to arrange the production of one of his plays. Wurzel-Flummery will appear on a double-bill with news plays by Barrie in April, a first professional production for Milne.[4]

 

But let’s not forget that there is a war on–more or less. So goes another one of the brilliant bits of historical close-focus in Kipling’s History of the Irish Guards. He takes a notable incident and draws it out, implying that it might stand (ah but how could it? It is an incident…) for an entire period in the life of the battalion. Shall we live and let live, or shall we get on with it? And shall we keep up with the sporting metaphors, even now, in the midst of the war’s third winter?

For the moment, things were absurdly peaceful on their little front, and when they came back to work after three still days at Maurepas, infantry “fighting” had become a farce. The opposing big guns hammered away zealously at camps and back-areas, but along that line facing the desolate woods of St. Pierre Vaast there was mutual toleration, due to the fact that no post could be relieved on either side except by the courtesy of their opponents who lay, naked as themselves, from two hundred to thirty yards away. Thus men walked about, and worked in flagrant violation of all the rules of warfare, beneath the arch of the droning shells overhead. The Irish realized this state of affairs gradually — their trenches were not so close to the enemy; but on the right Battalion’s front, where both sides lived in each other’s pockets, men reported “life in the most advanced posts was a perfect idyll.”

So it was decided, now that every one might be presumed to know the ground, and be ready for play, that the weary game should begin again. But observe the procedure! “It was obvious it would be unfair, after availing ourselves of an unwritten agreement, to start killing people without warning.” Accordingly, notices were issued by the Brigade — in English — which read: “Warning. Any German who exposes himself after daylight to-morrow January 19 will be shot. By order.” Battalions were told to get these into the enemy lines, if possible, between 5 and 7 a.m.

They anticipated a little difficulty in communicating their kind intentions, but two heralds, with three rifles to cover them, were sent out and told to stick the warnings up on the German wire in the dusk of the dawn. Now, one of these men was No. 10609 Private King, who, in civil life, had once been policeman in the Straits Settlements. He saw a German looking over the parapet while the notice was being affixed, and, policeman-like, waved to him to come out. The German beckoned to King to come in, but did not quit the trench. King then warned the other men to stand by him, and entered into genial talk. Other Germans gathered round the first, who, after hesitating somewhat, walked to his side of the wire. He could talk no English, and King, though he tried his best, in Chinese and the kitchen-Malay of Singapore, could not convey the situation to him either. At last he handed the German the notice and told him to give it to his officer. The man seemed to understand. He was an elderly person, with his regimental number in plain sight on his collar. He saw King looking at this, and desired King to lift the edge of his leather jerkin so that he in turn might get our number. King naturally refused and, to emphasize what was in store for careless enemies, repeated with proper pantomime: “Shoot! Shoot! Pom! Pom!” This ended the palaver. They let him get back quite unmolested, and when the mirth had ceased. King reported that they all seemed to be “oldish men, over yonder, and thoroughly fed up.” Next dawn saw no more unbuttoned ease or “idyllic” promenades along that line.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Works, 313-4.
  2. Diaries, 120-1.
  3. War Letters, 118-120.
  4. Thwaite, Milne, 180.
  5. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 113-14

A Battle Postponed: Last Letters, Larks, Misfires and Misery with Noel Hodgson, Alan Seeger, Siegfried Sassoon, Rowland Feilding, and Donald Hankey; Tolkien Arrives; Thomas Hardy Longs for News; Edward Thomas Walks the Green Roads

We begin with Alan Seeger, our American in the French Foreign Legion. It’s easy to forget, here, with our focus on the British experience, but the Somme battle involved a large number of French troops as well.

We go up to the attack tomorrow. This will probably be the biggest thing yet. We are to have the honor of marching in the first wave. No sacks, but two musettes, toile de tente slung over shoulder, plenty of cartridges, grenades, and baïonnette au canon.

I will write you soon if I get through all right. If not, my only earthly care is for my poems. Add the ode I sent you and the three sonnets to my last volume and you will have opera omnia quo existant.

I am glad to be going in first wave. If you are in this thing at all it is best to be in to the limit. And this is the supreme experience.

This potential “last letter,” sent to a mysterious “friend” rather than to his mother or his Parisian Godmother, is, as so many will be, mistaken. Due to wet weather (and, perhaps, a late lack of confidence in the artillery preparation) the “biggest thing yet” will now be pushed back by two days…

 

The 9th Devons learned this around mid-day. Their excess kit had already been put into storage in preparation for the forward move into the “assembly” trenches, and all was ready for the assault. Instead, they now had at least a day and a half of free time. Noel Hodgson, a scholar at heart till, settled down to read a pocket Odyssey–in Greek, naturally. Later on, youth and restlessness overtook the tightly-knit band of brother officers:

After dinner a spirit of skittishness came over the officers, and we indulged in various rags, the most brilliant being to try running up to the top of a bell tent. When done by several at once from all sides it has a terrifying effect on the inmates of the victimised tent.[1]

Juvenile hijinks do not generally travel well–but doesn’t this one? Imagine being in a bell tent (four-sided, circus-like in profile, but only big enough for a few men to sleep) and all the walls suddenly beaten inward and upward by eight hammering feet…

A minor irony, this, that while the troops slated for the actual attack had time to lark about, those who were to have rotated into reserve remained entrenched in the teeth of the bombardment.

 

Rowland Feilding, out of combat for the time being, at least, went up to watch the show before The Show.

June 28, 1916. Corbie

To-day the Trench Mortar officer of the 30th Division (Captain Edwards) invited me to lunch at his Artillery Battle Headquarters, in front of Bray, to see the bombardment. It was in full swing, as it has been, day and night, since
the 24th. It was an impressive sight. Heavy rain was falling, and the sky was cloudy, and—especially opposite
the French—the ridge, where the German trenches are, was hidden by a wall of smoke from the bursting shells.
The Germans were not replying at all—at any rate on the back areas, though they appeared to be doing so upon our front line.

They (the Germans) must be having a horrible time, I should think. All our valleys are thick with guns and howitzers. In one small valley alone, which I know well, I was told to-day, we have more guns concentrated than
were employed by our army in the whole South African War.

Some of our shells were bursting prematurely, which is bad. It reminded me of poor D—— once when we were at Cambrin and the same thing was happening. It was at the time when a good many ladies at home were beginning to take up munition work, amongst them, he said, his mother; and he remarked: “I shouldn’t be surprised if those were some of my mother’s shells!”[2]

Another pretty funny bit. Less amusing, of course, to the men who were still in those lines, with mother’s shells falling short and the German retaliation picking up speed.

 

Donald Hankey, is one of these, and his new diary attests to the general unpleasantness of being in the front of a battle zone. Many minds have been fixed upon the task of making this zone as unpleasant as possible–and few of them are worried about how this will affect their own troops. The infantry are… well, yes: they are there to be shot at. And gassed.

The last few days have been awful. Our people must needs try their hand at gas. The first night a burst cylinder gassed half the gas experts, besides a lot of our men. The second night the wind was unfavourable, and they elected to get rid off the stuff over us just a half hour after we had been informed that the stunt was off, and had consequently ceased our precautions against the gas and the inevitable [German] barrage. We were fairly caught–“hoist with our own petard” … The only comfort was that it killed the rats. Poor comfort that!

Poor comfort indeed–but this awkward phrase is a reminder that Hankey must envision this diary as something upon which future publications can be based. He has abandoned the ceaselessly uplifting pose of the “Student in Arms,” but he is trying here to find a middle ground. Might this sort of tone be successful? Perhaps, but it’s a poor compromise between truth and public journal-ism.

Here’s how Hankey described these same days in a letter:

…a week in a rat-infested trench, was bombarded by German shells, gassed by our own gas, got waist-deep in liquid mud without the chance of a change, saw some of my best men blown to bits, etc. etc. Couldn’t do anything in return.[3]

 

Siegfried Sassoon is no stoic, and he too is clear on the fact that to be in a trench on the Somme at this time was certainly “very beastly.” But a man with a good book is never truly miserable…

June 28,

Here I sit in this dog-kennel of a dug-out in 85 Street with the shells hurrying and hurooshing over to Germany; or
thereabouts, and banging away on the slopes on each side of Fricourt and away to Contalmaison. Wet feet–short of sleep–trench-mouth—very beastly it all is—on the surface. But all’s well, really… Reading Hardy’s Tess now.[4]

 

And as the young soldier whose verses he had admired over the winter hunkered down to read his Tess, Thomas Hardy himself was writing his friend Florence Henniker in the hopes of getting more war news. So, yes: even old men abed in England know that something is afoot.

My dear Friend:

…We had a mild excitement last week—the Wessex Scenes from the Dynasts having been performed by the Dorchester players at the Weymouth theatre. The house was crammed—many wounded men & officers being present—& the money raised for the Red Cross & Russian wounded—was a substantial sum. Of course the interest to us lay not in the artistic effect of the play—which was really rather a patchwork affair, for the occasion—but in the humours of the characters whom we knew in private life as matter-of-fact shopkeepers & clerks.

…I daresay you get rumours of war news which don’t reach us here. People seem to think we shall do something decisive soon, but I don’t know…

Always affectly

Th. H.[5]

 

And one poem, before we go. Edward Thomas is writing of a real forest near his camp, and yet he seems to overlay life with a sort of fairy tale gloss–and through that we glimpse an undercoat of uneasiness. I suppose the best fairy tales are threatening, and a bit uncanny, but there is battle at the end of this one, no?

 

The Green Roads

The green roads that end in the forest
Are strewn with white goose feathers this June,

Life marks left behind by someone gone to the forest
To show his track. But he has never come back.

Down each green road a cottage looks at the forest.
Round one the nettle towers; two are bathed in flowers.

An old man along the green road to the forest
Strays from one, from another a child alone.

In the thicket bordering the forest,
All day long a thrush twiddles his song.

It is old, but the trees are young in the forest,
All but one like a castle keep, in the middle deep.

That oak saw the ages pass in the forest:
They were a host, but their memories are lost,

For the tree is dead: all things forget the forest
Excepting perhaps me, when now I see

The old man, the child, the goose feathers at the edge of the forest,
And hear all day long the thrush repeat his song.

 

And speaking of forests and roads and the English landscape and fantasy, there is a short note in the battalion diary of the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers today, a century back. Second Lieutenant J.R.R. Tolkien has joined.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Zeepvat, Before Action, 192-3.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 81.
  3. Davies, A Student in Arms, 170-1.
  4. Diaries, 80.
  5. Collected Letters, V, 165-6.
  6. Chronology, 82.

Wilfred Owen’s First Meal as an Officer; Bimbo Tennant Serves the Troops; Donald Hankey Doubts the Push

It’s been quite a while since we’ve heard from Donald Hankey, whose “Student in Arms” series of articles has ended. But he has evidently adjusted to his reinstated officer status, for he has begun to keep a diary.

June 18th.–Rain! The men are fifteen in a tent in a sea of mud. Poor beggars! They are having a thin time. Working parties in the trenches day and night; every one soaked to the skin; and then a return to a damp, crowded, muddy tent. No pay, no smokes, and yet they are wonderfully cheery, and all think that the “Push” is going to end the war. I wish I thought so! And even if peace did follow the Push, how many of them would be left to see it?[1]

This is a somewhat different note than the thoughtful, positive patriotism which defines so much of Hankey’s published writing. Merely the difference between the diarist and the journalist, or dawning disillusionment?

 

If Hankey may be changing (or, at least, lacks confidence in the coming Push), Bim Tennant remains his cheerful self. His war continues to be something of a folly–or, rather, a fancy,

June 18th, 1916.

Thank you so much for your letter which I loved; I hoped so much that you would remember to criticise my poems…

Of course things look rosier to a casual observer posted in the Curzon Hotel than they do to a ditto, ditto, walking down the streets of this place which once had a population of 18 or 20,000 people, and now has not a soul. I live off Rue l’Ammonier which means either a hermit or an almond tree. An equally nutty thing to be.

Last night before I came up here was the last night of ‘the Fancies.’ I sang four songs, and took the part of Harry Tate’s boy’s friend in the sketch ‘Motoring.’ After the show we had a great supper on the stage. This was an idea of mine, and was a huge success. The officers did the serving, and the men were only allowed to sit and eat and drink. Lomas Bimbo’s batman] made a great success of cooking the soup and other things, and worked hard. He  and the others thoroughly enjoyed the dinner. I haven’t seen Lomas so happy for some time. It was rather a bore we had to go away that evening and come up here at 11.45, about 9 miles. . . .

I do hope you are better? I think of you continually, and love you more than the whole world put together. May we soon all be together in Peace.[2]

 

And things are finally happening for Wilfred Owen. A rare letter to his father, today brings more than a faint hint of the letters of the young Henry Williamson in 1914: to his mother, often and often honest; and to his father much more rarely, and generally only when he can fan the feathers of some new status.

Monday, 10 p.m.

Manchester Regiment, 5th Battalion

My dear Father,

…Got a car from Milford to the Camp 2 or 3 miles off: a vast affair on the top of a hill with Pines interspersed among the Huts. The Officers’ Huts form a big settlement apart.

That can hardly be an accidental formulation, can it?

I was introduced by Briggs to the Adjutant, who shook hands and left me to my own devices.

Supper was an informal meal today. I was helped to an enormous portion of pies and things. The Band meanwhile played outside. I need Camp Tackle, but have been provided for tonight.

I know nothing of the officers, other than our Set of ‘Artists’ and nothing of my duties. The men seem a fairly superior crowd…

Fondest love to all. Your W.E.O.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Davies, A Student in Arms, 169.
  2. Memoir, 201-2.
  3. Collected Letters, 394.

Lord Dunsany: Alarums, and Exeunt Rebelles; Aubrey Herbert–and Some Fellow Named Lawrence–at Kut, and the Future of Military Romance; Raymond Asquith on Depressed Glamor Queens and the Pleasures of the Breast

Lord Dunsany is still a prisoner in Jervis Street Hospital; but the cavalry–or, rather, the infantry–have nearly arrived.

That night I got some sleep, and, when I woke up, the Leinsters had captured the hospital. There was a song that the men of the 5th Battalion used to sing on our marches round about Dublin, which I liked the least of all the songs that they sang. Many of their songs were delightful, but this was a vulgar song, that I always disliked. Now, in the bright morning, there was a soldier singing that song in Jervis Street; and, being rather weak, I was nearly moved to tears by it. And there was no one firing any more in the room above my head; but the roof was still occupied, and empty cartridges came tinkling down past my window.

I’ve been overusing the word “reverie,” usually with reference to Siegfried Sassoon‘s uncanny ability to summon a mood of pastoral beauty-mongering no matter what his actual circumstances. This is another sort of thing entirely: a fierce concentration of the autobiographer’s powers of memory on a period when time stretched endlessly out, when complete, enforced inaction was combined with distant sounds of deadly dramatic action. There is one natural metaphor for such an experience–blindness, stillness, the reliance on hearing–but an even better metaphor didn’t occur to me until I read this next bit.

Dunsany is revered by many as one of the founding English fantasists, the noble father to a proliferating progeny of impoverished genre productions, and his light way with wonder is certainly on display in these descriptions of lying abed during the Rising. But his greatest literary successes in his own time came as a playwright.

Troops came up the passage, and I have reason to believe that others went out by the other end of it, leaving the passage empty only for as long as the stage is sometimes left when an author does not wish two parties to meet, but at the same time must not leave the stage empty… Soon after this an officer of the Sherwood Foresters, Captain Okeover, came in, fit and well and unwounded, and, exercising a conqueror’s right, demanded a bath.[1]

 

July will be the cruelest month, this year. April is the month of that early 20th century British specialty: the imperial side-show that distracts from the main-effort theaters of global conflict. From Ireland, now, to Mesopotamia, where Aubrey Herbert has been summoned to negotiate the surrender of the garrison of Kut to the Turkish general Khalil Pasha.

We three then went out to the trenches with a white flag, and walked a couple of hundred yards or so ahead where we waited, with all the battlefield smells round us. It was all a plain with a river to the north and the place crawling with huge black beetles and stinging flies, that have been feeding on the dead. After a time a couple of Turks came out. I said “We have got a letter to Khalil.” This they wanted to take from us, but we refused to give it up, and they sent an orderly back to ask if we might come into the Turkish lines. Meanwhile we talked amiably. The Turks showed us their medals, and we were rather chagrined at not being able to match them.

Several hours passed. It was very hot. I was hungry…

We were blindfolded and we went in a string of hot hands to the trenches banging against men and corners, and sweating something cruel. Beyond the trenches we went for half an hour, while my handkerchief became a wet string across my eyes. Then we met Bekir Sami Bey. He was a very fine man and very jolly…

After coffee and yogurt, a long ride to Khalil’s camp. Remember, Herbert, you are the living bridge between two British eras, the age of the “Dr. Livingston I presume” imperial adventurers and the Greenmantle-to-Bond secret agents. How to begin?

“Where was it that I met your Excellency last?”

And he said: “At a dance at the British Embassy.”

Well-played!

Khalil throughout the interview was polite. He was quite a young man for his position, I suppose about thirty-five, and a fine man to look at–lion-taming eyes, a square chin and a mouth like a steel trap… We began on minor points…

And thence they proceeded to the matter of the treatment of the Arab population in Kut, which had aided the British; to possible prisoner exchanges, to Khalil threatening to hang any Arab troops who had surrendered, to the destruction of the British big guns, and then to the question of British ransom payments. These will prove controversial…  nothing is definitively decided, but there can be no more pretense that Britain has anything, really, to negotiate with. Khalil is secure, and the fate of Kut is in his hands… and so the British retire to tents to write their reports.

Herbert is pleased with himself. He shouldn’t be: he’s an amateur and flatters himself both that he is a gentleman dealing with gentlemen and that he has handed Khalil well, by extracting a hint of concessions despite the British position of weakness. This is either absent-minded overconfidence or willful blindness. (Apologies for going to this metaphor-to-hand so often, but I remind readers that Herbert is in fact extremely myopic.)

The Arabs of Kut will be badly treated nonetheless. The Turks are a dominant imperial people willing to ignore feeble notions of honor in order to punish a restive subject population–an action which should not stretch the British imagination very far. There will be reprisals, torture, massacres… and Herbert will return to negotiate about wounded prisoners, etc., while the rest of the British command turn to what we nowadays call “spin,” trying to suppress reports of their failure to win real concessions, of Townshend’s breakdown, and of the fact that their offer of payment–to be spurned by Khalil–was essentially a failed bribe offered to escape the consequences of military defeat.[2]

A bad scene. But let’s tart it up in thematic dress: is this the death of amateurism, a grubby end to an imperial misadventure that clears the decks, in a way, for the different sort of full-on industrial disaster which will befall the British armies in July? Is this, then, the very last gasp of Britain’s 1914-and-before?

Or are we merely present at the sundering of romantic adventure from the action of military history?

There will still be armies, going forward. And there will be war literature in great profusion and terrible strength. But it will be much harder, now, to mistake a work of military history for a work of “romance.” It’s not that commando raids and spy escapades and guerrilla successes are not a part of military history; it’s that once they were close to its heart, holding the stage whenever big battles and sieges didn’t, and now they are mere rounding errors in the ledger of war.

What has Aubrey Herbert to do with the Somme? Or any one unusual man (sniper stories aside) with Verdun, or Stalingrad, or Kursk? We love adventure stories, light or dark–but what has Rambo, or Conrad’s Kurtz, to do with the Tet offensive or Operation Rolling Thunder? The size of the forest is imagination-beggaring, now, so we must leave the landscape to the serious historians, who only deign to decorate with individual trees when they sense our attention flagging. Meanwhile we may transplant the little saplings of romance, find some secluded glade, and clone them to our hearts’ desire.

Apologies for the semi-coherent critical cadenza, but I have a rare opportunity: who else is in that tent, scribbling away beside Herbert?

None other than the living embodiment of the escape from our nightmare of modern bureaucratic warfare–T.E. Lawrence! Lawrence of Mesopotamia just now, but not for long.[3]

Lawrence, another talented irregular, was, like Herbert, irregularly attached to the staff. He too described today’s events in a letter home. Lawrence takes more interest in their adversary:

Colonel Beach, one of the Mesopotamian Staff, Aubrey Herbert (who was with us in Cairo) and myself were sent up to see the Turkish Commander in Chief, and arrange the release, if possible, of Townshend’s wounded. From our front trenches we waved a white flag vigorously: then we scrambled out, and walked about half-way across the 500 yards of deep meadow-grass between our lines and the Turkish trenches. Turkish officers came out to meet us, and we explained what we wanted. They were tired of shooting, so kept us sitting there with our flag as a temporary truce, while they told Halil Pasha we were coming–and eventually in the early afternoon we were taken blind-folded through their lines and about ten miles Westward till within four miles of Kut to his Headquarters.

He is a nephew of Enver’s, and suffered violent defeat in the Caucasus so they sent him to Mesopotamia as G.O.C. hoping he would make a reputation. He is about 32 or 33, very keen and energetic but not clever or intelligent I thought. He spoke French to us, and was very polite, but of course the cards were all in his hands, and we could not get much out of him. However he let about 1,000 wounded go without any condition but the release of as many Turks–which was all we could hope for.

We spent the night in his camp, and they gave us a most excellent dinner in Turkish style – which was a novelty to Colonel Beach, but pleased Aubrey and myself.[4]

 

Surely we should down pens after Dublin and Kut, but it feels almost as if a little Raymond Asquith–idle, witty, but persistently human despite it all–would allow us to claim that we have run the gamut of war-letter-writing all in one day… or maybe it’s just that I just can’t resist a few of these bits. No war blog is complete without a reference to the difficulties of breast-feeding! First, snippets from two of yesterday’s letters, to his wife Katherine and to Diana Manners.

Intelligence,
G.H.Q.
B.E.F.
28 April 1916

…I’m delighted to hear that the baby has your eyebrows; as you say, one is grateful enough for their having anyone’s. I hope it may also inherit your eyes (not to mention “little classical”) and my own kind heart and hatred of impurity . . .

 

28 April 1916

Katharine has kept on telling me for weeks now that you have been very sweet to her but very low in your spirits. I do hope that you are not sick of love for one of these terribly young men?

. . . And yet there is a bitter pleasure in your being subject to chance and change like the rest of us . . . Much as one likes you, one would like you less if you were not (occasionally) depressed. Do you think yourself that you would love anyone who was so free from human vicissitude as to be always on the top of the wave? Perhaps you do think so. But if you do it is only because you regard people as if they were things. The Matterhorn would certainly lose its somewhat dreary point if once a week it looked like a molehill, and Venice similarly if it had moods of Manchester…

 

Finally, today, a century back, once again to Katherine Asquith, who, one presumes, has learned to deal with receiving sympathy in the form of self-centered humor:

Intelligence,
G.H.Q.
B.E.F.
29 April 1916

I have a beautiful long letter from you with a few complaints which I take to be a healthy sign. I always understood that the first clutch of infant lips on the breast was the most thrilling and exquisite moment in a woman’s life. Don’t tell me that I have been misinformed. Really I think you must be mistaken in supposing the sensation to be unpleasant.

…I am glad to hear that the child has a curly mouth as well as curly eyebrows, but a little surprised that it has not yet given proof of the exceptional cleverness which your children have always been used to display during the first few days of their lives at any rate . . .[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Patches of Sunlight, 287.
  2. Fitzherbert, The Man Who Was Greenmantle, 178-82.
  3. It behooves me to note here that I am aware of one of the most memorable and wicked little digs-at-the-reader in Robert Graves's Good-Bye to All That. Graves confessed, afterwards, that he was eager to make money with his book, and so, following the suggestion of a craven publisher, he put a little Lawrence into a draft that had nothing to do with Lawrence, or Arabia. But if that's what people wanted to read...
  4. Letter of May 18th, available here.
  5. Life and Letters, 260-1.

Bimbo Tennant Treads the Boards; Siegfried Sassoon as a Giant-Killer; Olaf Stapledon Reflects

Bim Tennant has failed to dodge the most predictable of bullets: what to do with this confidence-brimming, everybody-knowing, exceptionally well-bred young officer? Why, sweep him up into a staff appointment, of course. But what, pardon our asking, does such an appointment entail?

Bimbo wrote to his mother today, a century back:

… I am now and have been for 3 days Assistant Staff Captain (Lieutenant still of course) to Sir John Ponsonby’s brigade. He is most charming. I could not imagine a more delightful or considerate general.

I spent 3 days at Div. Headquarters and worked very hard, and was sorry to come here till I found what a heart-worthy person Sir John Ponsonby is. I am acting now every night in ‘The Fancies,’ a very good show which plays to crowded houses. They are all very nice fellows. There are 4 other officers and 3 soldiers, and all are really good.

The first part is a Pierrot business. Great fun, and the second half just ordinary turns; with a ‘Sketch’ as well. I sing a song in the first half and two in the second, as well as being in all the choruses. It is huge fun. Lovely scenery, splendid properties, make-up, footlights, and everything to make it complete. I have played 3 nights now. I was told I was best to-night. Eric Greer came last night, and I am dining with him to-morrow.

Our show lasts from 6 to 8.15, though it usually starts about 6.10, and finishes a little later than advertised.[1]

It’s that last note that seems to turn the letter from an example of goofy Staff business or a carefree life-behind-the-lines sketch into a farce, an obliviousness so extreme that it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Tennant always seems young (“writes” young?), but this is positively childish. “Dear mummy, I didn’t go back to the trenches to kill and be killed after all! Instead I’m in the school play–and I’m the best one in it and here’s what time!”

It’s as if he expects her to show up for the Divisional Follies, with a smooch afterwards, and ice creams for all the other boys in the play (or maybe for the officers, and a cheap ball-and-cup toy for the three soldiers). I’ve referenced Vonnegut’s scene of fanatically committed British officer prisoner-thespians before, but perhaps the most obvious forward-in-time connection is to “Oh, What a Lovely War!” It’s just strange that a tour in the trenches can so suddenly turn into a four-night stand as a song-and-joke man, and the war simply vanishes…

 

Siegfried Sassoon, his battalion rotated into rest, has once again taken up his pastoral pursuits. But they are not incompatible, today, with a war poem.

April 14

The existence one leads here is so much a thing of naked outlines and bare expanses, so empty of colour and fragrance, that one loves these things more than ever, and more than ever one hungers for them—the music and graciousness of life After six days up at the trenches in ugly weather, it was jolly to ride across to Heilly this afternoon, over the rolling ploughlands and through the strip of woodland on the hill above Mericourt and Treux. Sun shining and clouds flying with a boisterous north-west wind. And as I came back between 5 and 6 there were bluebells in the wood, ‘like a skylit water,’ between the stems of the trees—there is no undergrowth in that wood, so the cowslips and anemones and dog-violets are everywhere to be seen; and there are some tall wild-cherry trees in blossom; and thrushes were singing loud. And teams of horses harrowing on the uplands moved like a king’s procession, their crests blown by the wind. And wheat’s light green, and grass begins to grow, and leaves to sprout on sprays.

The Giant-Killer

When first I came to fight the swarming Huns,
I thought how England used me for her need;
And I was eager then to face the guns.
Share the long watch, and suffer, and succeed.
I was the Giant-Killer in a story.
Armed to the teeth and out for blood and glory.
What Paladin is this who bleakly peers
Across the parapets while dawn comes grey,
Hungry for music, and the living years.
And songs that sleep until their destined day?
This is the Giant-Killer who is learning
That heroes walk the road of no returning.[2]

Is this a good poem? Sure. A near-sonnet, it puts us through our paces. It is predictable, until it is (predictably) surprising–not a giant killer after all, but a dreamy boy, marked for death.

Is it then a banal war poem? That would be harsh. It’s musical and quick–light-footed. Let’s say it’s a slightly less than banal war sonnet, which twists in the final couplet from blood and glory into the darker–but very prettily lit–haze of post-Brookean contemplative self-sacrifice.

Is Sassoon really so unhappy, hungering for life and contemplating the shocking truth of his likely demise? No. He had a nice ride today, and he’s been mooning about sacrifice for months now, and this poem carves no more deeply into his psyche. The Giant-Killer is disabused of any dream of invulnerability, true–but I don’t think there is either irony or bathos in his final transmutation into a mere “hero.”

 

Speaking of conflicted writing projects, Olaf Stapledon has long been working intermittently on a sort of utopian tract/novel, with little success. He has also, of course, been very busy with the intense labor of ambulance of work, and with writing numerous and lengthy letters to his beloved Agnes, across the seas. But he has also had a chance to write a few sketches. The second of these was published today, a century back, in a Quaker quarterly. “The Reflections of an Ambulance Orderly” can be read–in part, alas, only–here, with the usual caveat about “spoilers” in external links.

 

Finally, today, a note: I have just updated the Dramatis Personae page. It had been egregiously out of date and lamentably incomplete, and is now only mildly disappointingly so.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Memoir, 186-7, available here, with spoilers.
  2. Diaries, 54-55.

T.E. Hulme Commissioned; Bernard Adams Reports on a Night’s Work; Raymond Asquith Reports on a Working Holiday

After two harrowing days in the Fricourt trenches, John Bernard Adams stands aside as a memoirist, letting his official company commander’s pen provide a terse, businesslike coda to the little burst of violence which has killed three of his comrades.

SPECIAL REPORT–C 1 Section (Left Company)

The mine exploded by us opposite 80 A at 6.30 P. M. last night has exposed about 20 yards of German parapet. A working-party attempting to work there about 12.30 A.M. and again at 2 A.M. was dispersed at once by our rifle and Lewis-gun fire. The parapet has been built up sufficiently to prevent our seeing over it, sand-bags having been put up from inside the trench. Our snipers are closely watching this spot.

J. B. P. Adams, Lieut.
O.C. “B” Coy.

6.30 A. M.     20.3.16.[1]

The point here is, simply, “so it goes… on and on, in a war of attrition.”

 

Time now, perhaps, to catch up with Raymond Asquith. Two days ago he announced in an uncharacteristically chipper letter to his wife Katherine that he was about to head to Lyons,

on a confidential mission. It will take me a couple of days and is rather a windfall. Anything to get away from St Omer and introduce a little variety into one’s life, though the ‘mission’ itself is not intrinsically very sensational. . .

Today, a century back, secret agent Asquith has a happy update:

This visit to Lyons is really the most agreeable thing I have done since the war began. I got here at 4 yesterday morning after rather a stuffy night journey; with just time for a small dinner at the station buffet at Paris. The place is very full owing to a fair which is going on, and I had to drive round the town sometime before finding a bed, but in the end got a very good room at this Hotel, with a bath which I have made the most of. It is one of the most charming towns that I have ever been in, a great manufacturing place of 1/2 million inhabitants–silk-making, shell-making, dyeing–every kind of industry–but not a whiff of smoke or a sign of a slum; broad streets, wide squares, handsome houses, excellent food and quite admirable wine. The town is built rather like Bath round an amphitheatre with one open side looking out towards the Alps, the rest steeply banked up towards the Cevennes…

I had tea yesterday in the highest part of the town, from which you see a fine panorama of orderly streets and the two great rivers the Rhone and Saone with their quays and bridges flowing together at the southern end of the town and beyond the town a wide green plain stretching away to Mont Blanc, which shows very plainly perhaps a 100 miles off, its precipices glistening with snow. But the atmosphere of the place is so wonderful, full of life and colour and effervescence under a hot and brilliant sun–A more utter change from the north of  France it is impossible to conceive, or from England either for that matter. It is the gayest town I have been in since Venice. There are a lot of French Colonial troops about—in appearance at any rate, much superior to ours–Senegalese with Beardsley faces. Zouaves with baggy braided trousers and moors with turbans of spotless linen, far handsomer than Othello. Best of all, no khaki, so that I am quite an excitement to the populace and the most charming looking women—the only ones in France—throw me every now and then a voluptuous leer.

Our boy has been starving for society. The holiday gets even more entertaining:

This change of paper is because the vice-consul (British) came in to my hotel and made me walk up the hill to lunch with his chief at a pleasant villa on the top, and then I walked back and am finishing my letters in the consulate. The consul and his wife are both very pleasant friendly people and the vice-consul is a most agreeable youth who was at Winchester and Oxford–long after my time. He showed me the sights yesterday, and in the evening took me to a play called Je ne trompe pas ma Femme [I don’t cheat on my wife]—quite well acted but not less boring than plays usually are in spite of the curtain rising upon a man and woman (illicitly) in bed together. The vice-consul took a fancy to the woman and wanted to go round with me afterwards and talk with her: but I very nobly refused: (a) I am very chaste (b) because the woman was very fat (c) because I hate talking to a woman in a language which they know better than I do. No. Je ne trompe pas ma femme.

I start back again after dinner tonight, and shall breakfast with my chief in Paris, report the results of my mission and then, I fear, back to St Omer. A very pleasant little holiday. I hope I shall find lots of letters from you when I get back.[2]

One wonders: does Asquith regret being parted from his regiment in the trenches as much as he had insisted he would? His silly little “intelligence” mission and this trip to the theater spanned exactly the same time as the proud old Royal Welch (only a few ticks down the seniority/prestige meter from Asquith’s Grenadier Guards) lost three officers to run-of-the-mill trench duels. Pointlessness, safety, comfort, and occasional entertainment as opposed to pointlessness,discomfort, sudden death, and esprit de corps…

 

Lastly, an update on T.E. Hulme’s martial identity: he was commissioned into the Royal Marine Artillery today, a century back.[3] It has been a strange, herky-jerky sort of war for Hulme. He charged into uniform as a ranker in the sui generis Honourable Artillery Company at the very start, saw some action in the trenches during the first winter, and has been wounded, discontented, out of action, a productive polemicist, and, briefly, an infantry subaltern. Neither fish nor fowl, he will now take his vast energy and unbiddable personality to the big guns…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Nothing of Importance, 194/206.
  2. Life and Letters, 249-50.
  3. Ferguson, The... Life of T.E. Hulme, 219.

Charles Scott Moncrieff is Back in France

Charles Scott Moncrieff is a highly experienced subaltern. A young ex-cadet reservist at the opening of the war, he was in combat in the brutal waning days of 1914 with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. By all accounts a brave and conscientious officer, he had, like Roland Leighton, converted to Catholicism while in France during the summer of 1915. And by now, a century back, he has spent enough time in the trenches to have come down with both trench foot and trench fever. After hospital time for the latter in December and January he was home in Scotland on leave, then to London. And then back to France.

We don’t know much about Moncrieff, here, yet, but he seems possessed of a certain sort of literary serendipity which bodes well–note, for instance, the name of the ship which bears him from England to France. We’ll begin aboard ship, a week ago:

R.M.S.S. Vera,
2 a.m. 13th Feb. 1916

I have had two pleasant days. On Friday I lunched at Fettes with the Pyatts and went down again to dinner there, where I met two of their old boys, brothers, one wounded in Gallipoli and the other in France. We all went in to Prayers and received a deafening applause from the House—of which I felt most undeserving and not a little embarrassed.

This would be Fettes College, an Edinburgh variation on the English Public school. Thence to London, where his “pleasant day” included visiting a friend recovering from being shot in the mouth and attending a play with his school friend and fellow Scot Charles Law. Law’s father, Andrew Bonar Law (always referred to as “Bonar Law”), is now a prominent minister in the coalition government. The play? Patriotic fare:

The Man who Stayed at Home—Jean Cadell is back there and played her Clarendon Crescent part very well. Afterwards I dined very peacefully at the Colonial Secretary’s house in Edwardes Square. Miss Law keeps house—the eldest son, who is flying, sat at the foot of the table. The Minister was on my right Charlie Law facing us. The three had been playing tennis all afternoon with Steel Maitland and were healthily tired. They were all very simple and pleasant. I was rather frightened of him before dinner in his sanctum, with his scarlet despatch box at his feet and a lot of papers—and Charlie saying silly things from the arm of a chair…

I think they show great promise of our future Government after the stale lees of this Asquith régime are poured down the sink of Time… I got down about midnight to this very unpleasant boat, where I have a berth in the dining saloon. We are now ordered to bed, and steam out in the morning.

The remarkable thing, I should make clear, is the meaning of “simple” in “simple and pleasant.” The traditionally forename-less Miss Law keeps house for her father and brothers, Mrs. Law having died several years ago. It would seem that she does so with a minimum of fuss and unusually little help from servants.[1]

Moncrieff then had an uneventful return to his battalion, which he seems to have timed nicely. They have been resting, and are due to spend the next six weeks much as the 1/Royal Welch Fusiliers spent their mid-winter.

2nd Bn. K.O.S.B.
17th February, 1916

I turned up here at mid-day, at the very back of beyond, after an eight mile walk from the station. They have been here about a week, and expect to remain till the end of March, partly for rest and relaxation, and partly to train two raw battalions in the Brigade.

I am awfully happy to be here, and away from Rouen, it is so homelike! Even with a new Colonel, and ever so
many new officers, and no Herries.

And then, yesterday, a century back, Moncrieff wrote to the Pyatts, with whom he had stayed in Edinburgh. The casual mention of his conversion is interesting.

2nd K.O.S.B.,
19th February, 1916

I was very glad to get your letter, except that it reminded me that I hadn’t written to you as I meant to. I only stayed three days in Rouen, and got back to the regiment on Thursday after three and a half months’
absence…

Our division is out resting since the new year, and after months of trenches and fatigues the men are wonderfully braced up by this quiet life and a little more or less systematic training. How long and what next we don’t know, but hope for whatever best each of us fancies. I cannot say on this flat sheet how much I enjoyed the day with you. Next day I was in London and dined at the Bonar Laws’, and embarked at midnight very much fortified by the spectacle of their decent and simple family life: so healthily different from some others’ among our rulers. I think he is the man we must look to to straighten things up after the war…

I don’t think I made it plain to you that I became a Papist some months ago. It has made me very contented. I am billeted from .to-day on the curé of this very quiet village which lies in an undrained valley some miles from anywhere. I haven’t had much speech with him yet as I only moved in to-day in place of another officer who has gone on a course.

A strange way to work this fact in–awkwardly over-casual? The next abrupt segue is amusing, too: Moncrieff is a literary type, highly cultured and a dab hand at European languages. So what just-published poetry is he reading?

By the way, have you seen The Spoon River Anthology? I just looked at it in London, in the house of a reasonably distinguished critic who raved over it. It is certainly interesting. I have brought Walpole’s new book out with me, a good enough war story from the Russian side…

There is an irony of sorts to be uncovered here. Moncrieff is presenting himself as a goodish sort of chappie–diffident but confident, with some hidden depths perhaps in all this bookishness and Catholicism and cutting-edge appreciation of proto-Roots-music versified Americana. But there is a smoke-screen here, concealing other depths. Moncrieff is gay, and the “prominent critic” is Robbie Ross, a crucial gate-keeper to the semi-secret gay literary life of London. Amusingly–or poignantly, given all that Moncrieff must manage–there is a letter from about this time in which Ross professes irritation with Moncrieff’s bright-boy posturing in their shared milieu. You can’t win…

But back to reading-at-the-front, a favorite subject here. The list continues:

…also Dante, a little Italian copy from Nice, where I stuck rather after resolving to read a canto daily before breakfast, and a marvellous eighteen-penny Cary (Clarendon Press) from Edinburgh, also Browning—in the same series—and a fragmentary novel of my own, but one hasn’t the ease here (at least I haven’t) to focus one’s mind either for reading or for writing in a Christian manner. That is why I write such stupid letters.

Aha! And not only a novel, but poetry, published in the school magazine:

The verses you asked for were in a Wykhamist (June or July). They looked very crude in print, and the point was buried rather, as my points usually are, because I always think on the other side of the words somehow. I think I was meant to speak, not to write and, indeed, if the war doesn’t leave me too old, I expect I shall become a priest. I send you another verse which you probably won’t like a bit.

Smokescreens, or a driven leaf?

Finally, to bring us up to date, here is today’s letter to his mother:

20th February, 1916

I moved yesterday to the parsonage, a pleasant little house, though squalid compared to an English parsonage. My other billet was very damp with frothy-looking fungus on the wall, and a grim-looking woman in charge.

. . . After lunch we rode over to a lecture on the battle of Loos, in a town about 6 miles off. I have got a new horse of great stature, which I find some difficulty in mounting, but he goes much better than either of my previous ones. We had a church parade yesterday, filling up more than half the little place, otherwise a very sparse congregation. . . . Things go on very quietly.  We are getting trenches ready rather fast for some kind of practice at the end of the week, the next-door regiment is to attack us, and vice versa.[2]

Moncrieff’s letter-writing is spotty, but I hope that this post can serve as an introduction, and that his war experience will enrich the writing of the Great War as we go forward…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. If there is other evidence for Jean Findlay's assumption, in Chasing Lost Time, that this phrase indicates a total lack of servants, then I've missed it.
  2. Memories and Letters, 110-113.

A Midsummer’s Night in Thuringia

June 19th,1914

Tonight, a century back, Charles Sorley attended an unusual production of a most thematically-appropriate Shakespearean play. With him were Professor and Mrs. Sorley, visiting their son during his German “gap” term. In a letter a few days later to A.E. Hutchinson (the same school friend of our first entry), he described the performance:

A parental visit has livened up last week-end considerably. We “did” western Thuringia, which I recommend for its peculiar strawberry wine, and saw Midsummer Night’s Dream in a wood, which has put me off theatres for the rest of my life. I laughed like a child and “me to live a hundred years, I should never be tired of praising it.” The Germans are so Elizabethan themselves that their productions of Shakespeare are almost perfect. And in this case, the absence of curtains and scenery, and the presence of trees and skies, added the touch of perfection. Shakespeare’s humour is primitive but, none the less, perfect.[1]

Sorley had loved Shakespeare since early childhood–his mother’s tutelage before he entered school included the memorization of Shakespeare and the other great English poets–and he had continued to build up his knowledge during his school days. (He was a young man prone both to fits of enthusiasm and to “completism,” or at least the serious pursuit of a real grounding in whatever subject he was excited about–he was, by nature, one who always did the reading.) At Marlborough, Sorley had been a leader of the “Shakespeare Society,” which met to read Shakespeare aloud in anticipation of a public performance, although Sorley remarked that “even if it leads to nothing public, it will at least mean a thorough knowledge of Shakespeare.”[2] This study he continued while in Germany (virtually all of his reading was self-selected rather than assigned–his official studies were in German, Philosophy, and Economics) and augmented by going to experimental or unusual productions of Shakespeare–we have already seen his sharp take on a Thuringian Merchant of Venice. In addition to Shakespeare he was also now under the influence now of Masefield (and he was reading the Georgians), of Goethe, and of Thomas Hardy, with each enthusiasm tending to peak and then taper off into a more guarded respect.

Amidst all that reading it is salutary to note that Sorley consistently values performance above literary study. These were plays, after all, and Sorley is quite right to note that Shakespeare, especially his comedies, are better seen staged than read, and that, unlike Goethe, he can be only understood with reference to the great contradictory pile of his plays, and not from any one masterwork. Sorley is an aspiring poet–what will he do with this critical insight that performance, especially a “natural” performance, is more true than any nifty scholarly work on the domesticated text?

In a jaunty July letter to his parents Sorley will remember the evening as the highlight of their visit: “The haphazard noticing of that advertisement in Eisenach is just one of these things that makes one believe in a special disposing Providence that sometimes takes the part of master of the revels. I only hope Bottom knows how nice he is.”[3]

Moved, perhaps, by the weather’s warm turn as well as by Shakespeare’s summery comedy, Sorley wrote that he now intended to take on the topic of summertime itself. He would begin with an essay by his favorite naturalist, and contemplate his last summer–before the German intermission was to conclude, in August, Oxford begin to loom on the autumn horizon…

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Charles Hamilton Sorley, 195.
  2. Letters, 45.
  3. Letters, 196.