For remembrance: soldier poets who have fallen in the war/Chapter 3
It is too late now to retrieve
A fallen dream, too late to grieve
A name unmade, but not too late
To thank the gods for what is great:
A keen-edged sword, a soldier's heart,
Is greater than a poet's art,
And greater than a poet's fame
A little grave that has no name.
Lance-Corpl. Francis Ledwidge, Last Songs.
None of the poets of the New Armies has written finer poetry than Francis Ledwidge, and few have found less inspiration in the war itself. The first of his books, Songs of the Fields, made its appearance when the war was young and he was still a civilian; the second, which he named Songs of Peace, after he had put on khaki and was gone on active service. He fought on the Serbian Retreat, and in Gallipoli; then was sent to Flanders, where he fell in action in July 1917. 'I have taken up arms,' he wrote to Lord Dunsany, 'for the fields along the Boyne, and the birds and the blue sky over them'; and in that second book of his you see him moving through scenes of conflict in strange lands, but still dreaming and singing of home and the peace of home. Though his poems are divided into those written in barracks, in camp, at sea, in Serbia, in Greece, in hospital in Egypt, and again in barracks, there is not a war song among them. In barracks he sings of love, of May, of a place he knew in Ireland where the birds used to sing:
And when the war is over I shall take
My lute adown to it and sing again
Songs of the whispering things among the brake,
And those I love shall know them by their strain.
Their airs shall be the blackbird's twilight song,
Their words shall be all flowers with fresh dews hoar—
But it is lonely now in winter long,
And, God, to hear the blackbird sing once more!
In camp and on the sea his verse is all of clouds, flowers, the sky and the trees and hills of Ireland; the hints of darker things are few and faint and elusive. In hospital his thoughts turn wistfully to Ireland, 'My Mother':
God made my mother on an April day
From sorrow and the mist along the sea,
Lost birds' and wanderers' songs and ocean spray,
And the moon loved her, wandering jealously....
Kind heart she has for all on hill or wave
Whose hopes grew wings, like ants, to fly away.
I bless the God Who such a mother gave
This poor bird-hearted singer of a day.
The war makes only a pensive undertone even in 'Evening Clouds,' with its vision of Rupert Brooke's grave:
A little flock of clouds go down to rest
In some blue corner of the moon's highway,
With shepherd winds that shook them in the west
To borrowed shapes of earth in bright array,
Perhaps to weave a rainbow's gay festoons
Around the lonesome isle which Brooke has made
A little England full of lovely noons,
Or dot it with his country's mountain shade.
Ledwidge proved himself a doughty soldier; his heart was in the war, though the war was not in his heart—there was no room in that for anything but his love of home and the treasures of peace for which he was fighting. His Helicon, like the Kingdom of Heaven, was within him; he drew most of his inspiration from his memories of Ireland, and there is no lyric in his Songs of Peace more exquisite in feeling and utterance than 'A Little Boy in the Morning'—
He will not come, and still I wait.
He whistles at another gate
Where angels listen. Ah, I know
He will not come, yet if I go,
How shall I know he did not pass
Barefooted in the flowery grass?...
The war breaks in upon the music of his Last Songs now and then, but more often these poems written in France or Belgium are of nothing but flowers and fairies, birds and children and the sights and sounds of his own land, for, as his little song 'In France' has it—
Whatever way I turn I find
The path is old unto me still;
The hills of home are in my mind,
And there I wander as I will.
There is enough, and more than enough, in his three volumes to indicate what our literature has lost by his early death and to justify Lord Dunsany, who discovered and fostered his genius and introduced his work to the world at large, in saying, 'I give my opinion that if Ledwidge had lived, this lover of all the seasons in which the blackbird sings would have surpassed even Burns, and Ireland would have lawfully claimed, as she may even yet, the greatest of peasant singers.'
The mental detachment that characterised Ledwidge, the readiness to escape in hours of leisure from his grim, abnormal surroundings into an atmosphere that was native to him, characterises the verse in Wyndham Tennant's one small volume, Worple Flit and Other Poems. A lieutenant of the Grenadiers, he fell in battle on the Somme at the age of nineteen—one year older than Chatterton. He passed the proofs of his book on the eve of the attack in which he was to die, and finished a last letter that night to his mother, Lady Glenconner, with the quotation that he uses on his title page:
High heart, high speech, high deeds, 'mid honouring eyes.
He had so literally lisped in numbers that he used to dictate quaint little poems even before he could write. One that he addressed to his mother when he was eight years old puts his love and admiration of her into most childishly simple terms, with here and there a touch that flashes into sudden beauty:
... She is full of love and grace,
A kind of flower in all the place....
Even the trees give her salutes,
They seem to know who 's near their roots....
She is something quite divine,
And joy, oh joy, this mother 's mine.
Two of the poems in his volume were written whilst he was at Winchester College, but the rest are dated from shell-shattered towns, whose names have become almost household words to us, and the war but rarely and intermittently intrudes into them. The longest, 'The Nightingale,' a glamorous love story adapted from Boccaccio, was written at Ypres and Poperinghe during June and July 1916. At Ypres, Poperinghe, Ecques, and Hullach Road he wrote the fanciful, bizarre old-world ballads of 'Worple Flit' and 'The Knight and the Russet Palmer'; some thoughtful lines on reincarnation, and a song or two in lighter moods. When the war does enter into his verse, as in 'Home Thoughts in Laventie,' it comes somewhat as a wonderful dream-pedlar, bringing dreams that are not of itself:
Green gardens in Laventie!
Soldiers only know the street
Where the mud is churned and splashed about
By battle-wending feet;
And yet beside one stricken house there is a glimpse of grass.
Look for it when you pass.
Beyond the church whose pitted spire
Seems balanced on a strand
Of swaying stone and tottering brick
Two roofless ruins stand.
And here behind the wreckage where the back wall should have been
We found a garden green....
So all among the vivid blades
Of soft and tender grass
We lay, nor heard the limber wheels
That pass and ever pass
In noisy continuity, until their stony rattle
Seems in itself a battle.
At length we rose up from this ease
Of tranquil, happy mind,
And searched the garden's little length
A fresh pleasaunce to find;
And there some yellow daffodils and jasmine hanging high
Did rest the tired eye.
The fairest and most fragrant
Of the many sweets we found
Was a little bush of Daphne flower
Upon a grassy mound,
And so thick were the blossoms set and so divine the scent
That we were well content.
Hungry for Spring I bent my head,
The perfume fanned my face,
And all my soul was dancing
In that little lovely place,
Dancing with a measured step from wrecked and shattered towns
Away ... upon the Downs.
I saw green banks of daffodil,
Slim poplars in the breeze,
Great tan-brown hares in gusty March
A-courting on the leas,
And meadows with their glittering streams and silver scurrying dace;
Home—what a perfect place!
Not a hint of the war enters into the poems of Ivar Campbell, who, as Guy Ridley says in a Memoir of him, was known to his friends not merely as a beloved companion, 'but also in the several roles of the poet, the artist, the reader, the talker, the tramp, and last, of course, the soldier.' Born in 1890, he was the son of Lord George Campbell, brother of the late Duke of Argyll. From Eton he went to Oxford; about the end of 1912, until March 1914, he was honorary attaché to the British Embassy at Washington, and Lord Eustace Percy, who was with him there, tells of the keen interest he took in America's democratic institutions and 'the political and economic life of the whole country.' Himself an idealist, 'it was simple "humanness" that he looked for, and he naturally found it on all sides.' The whole picture his friends give of Ivar Campbell is the picture of a very alive, kindly, attractive personality. 'He had his intolerances,' says Lord Eustace, 'but never where there was a call on his essential chivalry. His real qualities were a sympathy and affection ever waiting for a demand upon them, and never failing to meet such a demand.'
There are delightful stories of his love for children and his exquisite understanding of them. 'Children, as a matter of fact,' writes Mr. Ridley, 'affected him a great deal. His love of them was noticed by many people. Nothing was more astonishing than to see the way a child would intuitively know him as a friend and treat him as one of its own age.'
After he came home from America he had a curious wish to open a book-shop in Chelsea, under an assumed name; but the war came to prevent a realisation of that pleasant ambition. He applied, then, at once for a commission, but was rejected owing to a weakness in his sight, and eagerly accepted an opportunity to serve with the American Red Cross Society in France as driver of a motor ambulance. This was better to him than remaining 'one of the useless ones,' but he was not satisfied and presently returned to England, and, after another rejection, was in February 1915 'given a commission in the regiment of his clan, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.'
In the following May he went to France, and after sharing in 'the long and terrible experience of trench warfare' there, was sent with his regiment to Mesopotamia, and whilst gallantly leading his men against the Turkish position at Sheikh Saad on the 7th January 1916, was shot down, and died of his wound next day.
'Months before,' as you read in Guy Ridley's Memoir, 'he had mused on the grim prank played by war upon the idealist. The poet who sings of peace must himself take up the sword to win it.' He is forced to fight wrong with the weapons of the wrong-doer, to add to the destruction and horror in order 'to prove his hatred of war and murder.' Even without such testimony, one might have guessed at the charm of his character, his broad human sympathies, his love of beauty, his feeling for the quieter arts of happiness from the poems he has left us—from such a snatch of song as that beginning—
Peace, God's own peace,
This it is I bring you;
The quiet song of sleep,
Dear tired heart, I sing you...
from the beautifully imaginative 'Marriage of Earth and Spring'; from the plea of Calypso, that opens with the lines—
Tenderly I, too, loved thee and have given
All my heart into thy keeping...
If at day's dawn
My dear love dies,
Tell not the day,
Lest the laughing eyes
Of the day grow dim
And the bird-song cease.
Let her lie in peace.
If at day's death
My dear love dies,
My own hands
Will close her eyes,
And the rising moon
And the stars shall shed
Their silver tears
Round her white death-bed.
Here is what you learn of his personality from his poems. Not only in 'Half Time' does he pull up to look into the heart of things and give them their real value:
Warrior, cease your fight awhile,
Look upon the heap of spoil.
Are these things so greatly blessed
That you ever upward pile?
Always onward you have pressed,
But you soon must seek your rest.
Are these things worth while?
As for what he feels to be worth while—
I love thee as I love the holiest things,
Like perfect poetry and angels' wings,
And cleanliness and sacred motherhood,
And all things simple, sweetly pure, and good.
I love thee as I love a little child....
Or again, from 'Attainment':
When you have grasped the highest rung,
When the last hymn of praise is sung,
When all around you thousands bow,
When Fame with laurel binds your brow,
When you have reached the utmost goal
That you have set your hurrying soul....
Then you shall see the whole thing small
Beside the one gift worth it all:
The one good thing from pole to pole
Is called Simplicity of Soul.
All which is of a piece with the poem to his mother:
Can I make my feeble art
Show the burning of my heart?...
Every day and every hour
I have battened on your power,
While you taught of life the whole;
You my best beloved and nighest,
You who ever claimed the highest
Was the one and only goal....
When the sands of life seemed sliding
You were helping, you were guiding—
Claimed for me the glorious rôle:
You my loved one and no other,
You my only lovely Mother,
You the pilot of my soul;
Nicholas Todd was another lover of children. Born at Occold, Suffolk, in 1878, he was educated at Felsted and Keble College, then became in succession assistant master at Balham, and from 1906 to 1916, at Sedbergh School. He wrote charmingly whimsical plays, with the liveliest songs scattered through them, for his boys to act, and two of these, 'The Sacred Lobster' and 'The Bridge of Rainbows,' are printed at the end of a memorial volume. One who knew him says he seemed to bear 'a mysterious passport to the intimacy of children'; and that 'it was scarcely conceivable that he could ever have done other than teach boys to call the wild flowers by their names, to write painful Latin elegies, to love the becks and the fells, bird and beast, the satire of Gilbert and Sullivan, the human sympathy of Dickens. For all this was something more to him than a profession, a thing to be laid aside in leisure hours'—and in his leisure he wrote those plays and songs for his boys' amusement. His humour and love of nature and of children and of all life overflows his poems, and only once or twice does any hint of the war get into them. In August 1915 he recalls two friends who used to walk the heather with him, and now:
One is far away where the heroes stand
For the right of God and the motherland.
Another waits where the spire looks down
On the level plains round the Saxon town.
They have the gleam of the light divine,
The loss and the loneliness are mine.
In a different vein, just after he had joined the Queen's Westminsters as a private, he wrote a rhyming epistle from Hazely Down Camp, Winchester, on Easter Eve, 1916:
Dear Meg, now I 'm a simple Tommy
I thought you would like a letter from me,
Living a silent celibut
With twenty others in a hut,
My bed of wooden boards and tressels
And blankets thick with which one wrestles,
While the cold night wind through the door
Keeps time to rats that scour the floor;
A sergeant stern with language rude
Who tells me that my drilling 's crude,
And boots two inches thick which they
Make me to clean three times a day....
Who would have thought that I should go
To fight against a foreign foe?
If I return with half a leg
You 'll run much faster than me, Meg,
And in a race around the yard
You 'll beat me hollow, which is hard.
I shall forget in forming fours,
And other motions used by corps,
That ever I took interest
In dulce et decorum est.
And so—farewell! if when May comes,
And snow-white gleam the garden plums,
You run across the yard to school,
Hair-braided, with your reticule,
Then think of me, my little maid,
Forming for nine o'clock parade,
And making an egregious hash
Of drill, and growing a moustache!
This thought, that the same evening star
Shines on us both, though severed far,
And guides us on our unknown way,
Should cheer us all from day to day.
This 'gentle and vivacious little figure,' after six months of soldiering, was killed in France in October 1916, and when you have grown intimate with him in his verse you will feel it is the veriest truth of him that shines in the lines written on his death by an anonymous friend who fancies him arriving earth-dusty in Paradise with quick, impulsive stride and a deprecating, rather derisive smile for any acclamations that greet him when the word is passed:
...'This man knew joy and grief; was wise
Where others stumbled, loved the fragrant earth
And flowers and winds and quiet autumnal skies;
He gave men laughter, nursed the frailest birth
Of fancy—joyed in comradeship; his mind
Was quick in mystery, pondered in the shade,
Loathed war and cruelty—was unafraid.'
And as the whisper passed, the dreaming ways,
Perchance, awoke as magic; all your days
Came hurrying with phantom feet to bind
A wreath of flowers on your reluctant head.
I like to think how you, who loved not praise,
Endured the welcome of the clear-eyed dead.
He loved Sedbergh, and Sedbergh loved him, and you may be sure there will not be lacking some who will henceforth see him return to it as he saw other shadows return in such nights as he commemorates in 'The Old Schoolroom':
In the silence of the school-room, among the desks deserted,
Ink-stained and marred by marks of many hands,
Through the windows in the moonlight by driving rain-clouds skirted,
Come the visions of Old Boys from many lands.
And quietly and mournfully they take their well-known places,
And their books lie open by them on the form,
And they see, as in a mist-wraith, the old forgotten faces
With the scar-marks of the world's eternal storm.
Whilst Nicholas Todd was teaching at Sedbergh School, Robert Sterling was one of the students there. In 1912, Sterling went from Sedbergh to Pembroke College, Oxford. He was a brilliant classical scholar, fond enough of boating and football, but his love of literature, especially of poetry, dwarfed most of his other interests. 'He was something of a visionary,' says the friend who writes the memoir in his book; 'he used to wish that he could draw, feeling that so only—by artistic as well as literary expression, as in Blake—could he give adequate expression to his ideas. A serenity, and at times a certain dreamy wistfulness were peculiarly typical of him, and the quiet strength that comes of a firm hold upon a principle of life.' He had a genius for friendship, but 'never courted friendships; his friends grew around him, and they learnt that the force which had drawn them to him became stronger with closer contact.... His friendship ennobled, because his nature was less mundane, more spiritual than that of the ordinary mortal. He went about life in the same manner as did the knight-errant of old, who would give his purse to the first wandering beggar he met and forget all about it in a moment. Material things were taken as they came; if they did not come he wasted little time in trying to get them.'
The spirit and fascination of Oxford took a wonderful hold upon his heart and imagination, as you may gather from the six poems he has dedicated to her praise. See with what magic he pictures her in 'Oxford—First Vision,' and the aspirations that vision wakens in him:
I saw her bowed by Time's relentless hand,
Calm as cut marble, cold and beautiful,
As if old sighs through the dim night of years,
Like frosted snowflakes on the silent land,
Had fallen: and old laughter and old tears,
Old tenderness, old passion, spent and dead,
Had moulded her their stony monument:
While ghostly memory lent
Treasure of form and harmony to drape her head....
Oh, could I pluck (methought) from out yon breast
A share of her rich mystery, and feel,
Flushing my soul with new adventurous zeal
The fiery perfume of that flame-born flower,
Which grows in man to God: then I might wrest
Glad secrets from the past—the golden dower
Of the world's sunrise and young glimmering East.
And the same feeling stirring the same longings is in the sonnet to Oxford:
...Trees draw their sacrifice of greenery
From the old charnels that repose beneath;
So let me feel the impulse of thy breath,
Like an enchanter's spell, awakening me
To thy new treasures of Eternity
Bursting from out the pregnant soils of Death....
But two years saw the end of these dreams, when the war brought his Oxford career to a close. He won the Newdigate Prize of 1914 with his poem, 'The Burial of Sophocles'; and in the August of that year, just after war was declared, he obtained a commission in the Royal Scots Fusiliers. By the following February he was out in France, and was killed on the evening of St. George's Day, 1916, after holding his trench all day against the enemy's onslaughts.
All the war verse in his book consists of two quatrains—one in memory of a friend, and one which may be taken as a response to Germany's famous or infamous Hymn:
Ah, hate like this would freeze our human tears,
And stab the morning star:
Not it, not it commands and mourns and bears
The storm and bitter glory of red war.
Few of our soldier poets who have gone wrote verse so mature in thought and finished in style as Robert Sterling's.
It might not seem a youth's imaginings,
But to an Attic age might well belong,
says Roger Quin, in his beautiful memorial sonnet; and there is one stanza of Sterling's 'Burial of Sophocles' that lingers with me as his own fitting epitaph:
Ah, surely there is wonder and strange stir
Amid Earth's guardian gods, when the last goal
Hath gained the crown, and to Earth's sepulchre
We bear the way-worn chariot of the soul!
And surely here a memory shall last,
In hill and grove and torrent, of this day,
For bards to glean who can: and they shall sing
How the sweet singer passed
Forth to his rest with war about his way
And a dread mask of Ares menacing!
So far as I can learn, Scott Craven wrote nothing—at all events he printed nothing—after he doffed his civilian habit and became a captain in the Buffs. His 'Joe Skinner,' which was published over eleven years ago, before he had made a reputation as an actor, is the tale of a man,
So good and kind-hearted, so meek and so mild,
With the face of a satyr, the heart of a child,
who died broken and in poverty, a pariah, and misjudged by reason of the sinister sneer, belying his character, that was stamped on his face from birth—a tale in the Ingoldsby manner, told with much of Barham's irresponsible humour and rhyming and metrical cleverness, with passages of tenderness and odd pathos such as Barham seldom attempted. The ideas, sentiments, aspirations that run through the miscellaneous poems he wrote in the years before the war are in complete harmony with the spirit in which he promptly took up arms when the war came. 'The Cross in the Rock,' with its insistence that 'Love and Right shall rule for aye,' might almost have been written in anticipation of the ordeal through which the world has passed, and is passing:
Though Justice for a while delay
When the oppressed to her hath cried,
No righteous tear is shed in vain,
And Time no wrong hath justified.
For every jot unjustly ta'en
A tyrant nation yet shall pay,
And deep the cup of penance drain.
He unfolds his faith in 'Life's Prologue,' that whatever poor part may be given to us, and however cramped and sorry the setting, we should scorn to have any doubt or fear but 'hold the stage like men'; and reiterates it in 'The Song of the Stars':
...Then like grim warriors of old
Let 's glory in our scars,
And read aright, my doubting wight,
God's emblem of the stars:
Our highest, best achieved—behold,
A higher niche and sphere!
Nor deem the battle lost or won,
There 's something yet beyond the sun
When our brief thread of life is spun
And sorrows disappear:
A myriad suns beyond the sun,
Serene, resplendent, clear!
He wrote a play of Hereward the Wake, The Last of the English, that has real poetic and dramatic qualities; and a little before the war he was telling me, in his eager, sanguine fashion, of another play he meant to write, a romance of modern life that should get away from the squalor of the realists and preach a more idealistic philosophy—but all that ended when he fell gallantly in April 1917 heading his men in an attack on the German lines.
Nothing of the war enters into the poems of Harold Parry, though many of them were written whilst he was on active service and sent home on odd scraps of paper. He was just turned twenty when he was killed by a shell in Flanders on 6th May 1917. The romance of war had no lure for him, but it is easy to understand how impossible it was for one who held, as he so obviously did, by the old sanctities and ideals of progress and human right to stand apart and see them desecrated and destroyed under the iron heel of the Hun. There is the true gold of poetry and promise that can never be fulfilled in the best of his work—in 'A Song of Youth,' the 'Ode to Death,' some of the love songs, and in the 'Ode to Dusk,' with its exquisite close—
Listen. I hear the trumpets of the angels wind
Their call across the bordered infinite;
And Dusk, with all her panoply of falling light,
Is gone to kneel, adoring, at the feet
Which Mary Magdalen anointed, meet,
With richest spikenard
And fragrant costliest nard.
His sympathies went out to the weak and the wronged; for all his youth, he had probed much into the world's unhappiness and was passionate to help to bring in the reign of justice and righteousness, and 'with a practical, old-fashioned piety sought to obey the commandment, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.' He, too, had a great love for children and felt that
The simplest things in life are loveliest:
The smile of little children whose sweet eyes
Have not yet ceased from wistful wondering,
And innocent, as though the melodies
Of Life were all they knew—and cleanly things
Were all they saw and all they cared to see.
He had made history and political science his special studies, and won the Queen's Prize for History at his school and an Open History Scholarship at Oxford. Swinburne, Wordsworth, Keats, and Francis Thompson were his favourite poets, and a copy of A. E. Housman's 'A Shropshire Lad' was found on his dead body.
'I am going to try to get into the Army at the end of this term, I think,' he wrote to his mother from Oxford, three weeks before his nineteenth birthday. 'I have no wish to remain a civilian any longer; and, though the whole idea of war is against my conscience, I feel that in a time of national crisis like the present the individual has no right whatever to urge his views if they are contrary to the best and immediate interest of the State.'Less than a year later, a lieutenant in the King's Royal Rifles, he is writing to his sister from France: 'In general, the whole of the war zone is so un-Christian in its aspect and so horrible in its antithesis to all that is beautiful and good that I would rather not write about it. I do my best to forget and, in a measure, to forgive it by reading Keats, Blake, Swinburne or Housman, and even by attempts to write poems on the things of life, not the sins of it.' He goes on to say that he believes man is now being made to pay for the sins of his body with his body; that for centuries civilisation has been on the wrong track; 'man has developed his physical mind almost to the utter exclusion of his spiritual self'; that all manner of new inventions have been designed to increase his bodily comfort; he has given himself up to the worship of gold, values it for its own sake and the luxury it can give him. He would have little hope of raising the world out of this slough, 'but there are the children,' he says, 'and if only we can develop them along the new or, rather, the old right lines we shall have done something. The mind of a child is a most beautiful thing. I have told you—have I not, Kiddie?—that I am passionately fond of children, though I think that no one at home realises how strong that passion is, and I have never told any one yet what I had determined long ago to do after I left Oxford. To-day, when there is a possibility of death to be faced, I can tell you all. I had decided, no matter how successful I was at Oxford, to go and teach at an ordinary secondary school—best of all at the old, old school itself—for there I should meet the material upon which I could work. I want to teach children what love and beauty are, and how infinitely better goodness is than mere satisfaction—is it satisfaction?—of physical desires.' A high and wonderful ambition in one so young, and wonderfully significant that this boy could cherish it hopefully still amid scenes of savage slaughter and devastation where, as he was presently writing to his mother, everything was 'absolutely inhuman and unlovely: all that relieves the sordidness of the business is the pluck and cheeriness of the boys, and that is amazing to a degree.' He is so possessed by that ambition of his that it comes into several of his letters. To his friend Mundy, touching on his love of children and his longing to be of service to them, he writes, 'I have never attempted to analyse why exactly this love is so strong, though probably it is because children are so pure and innocent and unstained as much as may be by the sins of civilisation. This is the material upon which we must begin our gigantic task. Let us show to the child that there are greater and more wonderful things in the world than self and money; let us see that the instinctive love of beauty and the right things, which is such a wonderful prerogative of children, is fostered and developed by every means in our power, and when these children grow up they, much more than we, will be able to further this great revolution of the state of man.... Mundy, I feel sure that this is no idle dream—it is too beautiful for that; beautiful because its prospect satisfies as no dream ever can.'
As for the pacifists who protested that our one aim should have been to make peace as quickly as possible on the best terms we could get, he saw too clearly to wish for that and wrote, under the hourly menace of death, 'Though war is so inhuman, especially in its utter severance of man from everything for which he cares, it is infinitely preferable to peace while yet the devil has not been cast out of Germany.' And again, 'One thing is certain—we must never, never lay up for our children a heritage such as has been bequeathed to us. It is not right, it is not fair, it is vastly inhuman and too devilish to be anything but evil to the core.... Peace now means many things. It means first and foremost and very personally the saving of many, many lives. It means that the boys who have gone to war with laughter in their eyes and God in their heart can return to the ways they knew and loved so well. It means that perhaps many of them—perhaps even I—may one day make my way back to home and security and comfort. But, on the other hand, it means this—that the great sacrifice we have already made, the sacrifice of a million young lives is wasted. If we made peace now—peace on the basis our enemies suggest—we should find our hands, our hearts and, yea, our very souls touched with blood-guiltiness. We should have saved our own lives at the expense of all those who have died and all those dear and beautiful and lovely children as yet hidden deep in the vales of the future. For these we should have left a heritage like unto which our sorrow of to-day would be as joy. Let us put aside our personal feeling in this matter—though God knows it is deep and bitter enough—and by making our sacrifice perfect ensure the future happiness of the world. It is our happiness, or the happiness of countless thousands in the years when we, in any case, shall be no more.'
Some of the best of Henry Lionel Field's poems, such as the charming lyric 'Ploughman, Dig the Coulter Deep,' were written in his Oxford days. He was the favourite grandson of Mr. Jesse Collings and traced his descent, on the distaff side, from Cromwell. From Marlborough he went to Oxford, and matriculated for Lincoln College, but instead of going there preferred to start at once on what he meant to be the real work of his life, and became a student at the Birmingham School of Art. In July 1914, he was taking holiday at a sketching school at Coniston, when the sudden outbreak of war brought him hurrying home to enlist. He was persuaded to wait for a commission, and in due course was gazetted to the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, and in February 1916 was sent to France with his men. For five months he was in the trenches, and wrote home saying he was enjoying himself. 'I am much happier than I ever thought I should be in the Army. After all, I am in my destined place, and doing or about to do what I should be doing or about to do. In some way or another, home seems nearer, and thank God I don't flinch from the sound of the guns.' On another occasion, he wrote about himself and his brother, who was also in the firing line, 'It is our birthright to do something of this sort once in our lives. I honestly don't wish things otherwise, neither does Guy. I don't mean to talk about Spartan mothers, and that sort of thing.... But remember we are all part of each other, and think of it like this—when we leave you, it is not so much you losing us as you fighting through the medium of your sons.' He was killed in the Great Push of 1st July 1916; he had led his men forward and they had swept after him triumphantly over the first and second German trenches; he had called a laughing remark to a brother officer and was raising his hand as the signal for a further advance when a bullet struck him down. The trail of the war is over the drawings reproduced from his pocket sketch-book and over half a dozen of his twenty-six poems. He put his love of home into the lines addressed to 'J. C. F.' less than two months before he fought his last fight:
Sweet are the plains of France where the Lent lilies blow,
Yet sweeter far the woods and fields I know.
Fair is the land where the lark sings at dawn,
Yet fairer far the land where I was born.
No nightingale can sing a lovelier lay
Than that the sparrows chirp in my roof tree,
French suns can never paint a brighter day
Than that my fog-bound coasts can offer me.
But it is a sense of the tragedy and waste of it all that moves him in the rest of his war verse, as in the unfinished 'Carol for Christmas, 1914';
On a dark midnight such as this
Nearly two thousand years ago,
Three kings looked out towards the East
Where a single star shone low....
Be with them, Lord, in camp and field
Who guard our ancient name to-night.
Hark to the cry that rises now,
Lord, Lord, maintain us in our right.
Be with the dying, be with the dead,
Sore stricken far on alien ground,
Be with the ships on clashing seas
That gird our island kingdom round.
Through barren nights and fruitless days
Of wasting, when our faith grows dim,
Mary, be with the stricken heart,
Thou hast a Son, remember Him....
and in a broken verse at the end he prays that the purpose of all the welter of death into which he is going may be made clear to him.
Racing, polo, the joys of the chase were the main themes of the ringing, virile songs that Captain George Upton Robins wrote before he turned his back on sport and went on the great adventure into France, where he died in action on 5th May 1915. All the company he commanded on Hill 60 were killed, except his orderly, when, fatally gassed, he contrived to crawl down and make his report with his dying breath. Educated at Haileybury and at Magdalen, Captain Robins left Oxford to obtain a commission in the East Yorkshire Regiment during the Boer War, and in 1901 went on service to South Africa, attached to the Mounted Infantry. He resigned from his regiment a year after it returned to England, and became partner in a firm of London and China merchants. Marrying in 1905, he and his wife went to Shanghai, where he remained for two years on his firm's business. He was in Shanghai again when Germany invaded Belgium. 'As he was in sole charge of the business out there,' writes his sister, in a biographical note to George Robins' Lays of the Hertfordshire Hunt, 'it was not until December that he was able to fulfil the one wish of his heart and come home at once to offer his services to his country. Between August and December 1914 he was terribly impatient at his enforced exile. Writing of the battle of the Aisne he said: "I know of one gentleman of England ... who thinks himself accurs'd he was not there." I think he was never so pleased to see any one in his life as he was to welcome the man who came out to take his place and so set him free to come home. My brother was an idealist, and to him his King and Country were not mere names, but a very real part of himself. That he came from the other end of the world to fight for them is, I think, sufficient proof of the realness of his feelings.' In February 1915 he rejoined his old regiment, as captain of the 3rd Battalion, and in France, in April, was transferred to the 2nd Battalion of the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, which he was commanding in his last fight. At home, in happier years, he was assistant secretary of the Hertfordshire Hunt, and the keenest of sportsmen. He was fond of poetry, but sport came first, and inspires most of the best of his verse. Yet his 'Best of All' was not sport, and it is to her he turns in 'L'Envoi':
...War is good when the stress is past
And the rankling scars grow old,
For its rigours fade and its glamours last
Till the sombre grey turns gold;
And the hunger and thirst and the bitter days
No more in our thoughts find place,
But we mind that we trod life's roughest ways,
And met death face to face;
And the soul 's astir and the brain 's afire
For the good fight fought before,
But the heart knows well there is something higher
Than the clamorous ways of war.
Faint on the ear grows the bugle call,
And we turn once more to the Best of All....
And the same spirit, the same tenderness, the same turning of his thoughts homewards to 'the best of all' are in the hitherto unpublished lines he sent to his mother for her birthday, on the 27th November 1903:
Comrades in distant climes,
King's folk and homefolk too,
Many possess my rhymes,
None so fitly as you,
Steadfast were these and brave,
Sharers in stress and strife;
Fealty and love they gave,
You have given me life,
The most charming of love songs are his two called 'Roses,' one from Pretoria, and one from Shanghai; and the spirit of his loyal comradeship glows in his lines, 'To the Others':
...Rhymes are halting and verses weak,
Thoughts ring truer than words can speak.
Proudly I fill the wine-glass up
And I pledge you all in a loving cup.
Here 's to the cheery days gone by
When we marched in the ranks of the old M.I.
And still in the future, come what may,
Be it sport or war, be it work or play,
I ask no better than just to ride
Shoulder to shoulder, side by side,
With the men whose mettle I 've proved and tried,
Comrades of mine.
This was written when he was leaving the Army after the Boer War, and 'the others' were five of the officers who had been through the South African campaign with him. Three of the five died, as he died, in the Great War. At the end of his book is a fist of fourteen of his friends, followers of the Hertfordshire Hunt, who also followed him to death in France.
With one or two exceptions Bernard Charles de Boismaison White's poems date from before the war. Born at Harlesden in 1886, on his father's side, says a memoir by de V. Payen-Payne, he was connected with the French family of de Boismaison, his grandmother having been the daughter of Bernard de Boismaison (son of Louis XVI.'s ophthalmic surgeon) who came to England at the Revolution and settled at Chichester, where his son taught dancing. After a year's apprenticeship to a London printer, Bernard White obtained a post, in 1910, in the publishing house of Messrs. Hutchinson, and thence went, in 1912, into the publicity department of the Marconi Company, and was presently acting also as assistant editor of the Wireless World. 'Nothing was further from his thoughts than a soldier's life,' but in September 1914, when Germany was entrenched within a day's march of Paris and there was dire need of men for our Army, he joined the Officers' Training Corps of the London University. The following February he was gazetted to the York and Lancaster Regiment, but in June was persuaded to transfer to the Tyneside Scottish (20th Northumberland Fusiliers), and went to France with that regiment on the 1st January 1916. 'War is the most horrible, inconceivable, inhuman sacrifice it is possible to imagine,' he wrote to his brother in February.... 'I am with you, and very close, too; for after all, am I not fighting for the little home in peaceful England that is at present so sad?'
His only poems of the war are a translation into verse of the speech delivered by M. Henri Lavisse at the Sorbonne in December 1914; a quaint Struwwelpeter parody:
Let us see if William can
Make war like a gentleman....
and 'Pro Patria,' to the Empire's Service of Wireless Operators with whom he had been associated in his peace-time business:
...Ye in our camps, our ships, the stations that gird our seas,
Holding in trust the key and power of the sacred flame
For England's greater honour, let not your service cease
Till ye confirm your royal right to the scroll of Fame,
Till on the key
For the troubled ears of the world ye tap out the signal—Peace.
'One of his outstanding qualities was his love of children,' writes the editor of his book, and you might guess as much from the simple and charming poem 'To Guy':
Little eyes that are blue,
Here 's a welcome which you
Cannot yet understand...
Until he joined the Artists' Rifles in 1915, when he was thirty-seven and might have been excused if he had not volunteered, Edward Thomas had written all his poetry in prose. There is a delicate play of fancy and imagination and a lapidary cunning in the verbal artistry of his essays and criticisms which make it less surprising that he should at last have found a medium of expression in verse than that he did not find it earlier. But none even of his intimates can have foreseen that, with his gentle manners, his diffident self-distrust and bookish preoccupations, he had in him the makings of a soldier. Chivalry, the finest sense of honour, steadiness of purpose and a quiet courage we always knew that he had; what took us by surprise was the completeness with which he threw aside his civilian habit of pleasant bohemianism, subdued himself to military discipline and grew cheerfully hardened to the rougher life of camp and training ground. Certainly, he was no lover of war; he answered the call to arms solely because he had a conscience and felt it was his duty to do so; then, with his usual thoroughness, he was not satisfied to make a pretence of being what he had set out to become. He devoted himself as keenly and as scrupulously to his military work as he had done to the literary work that was more properly his. He was impatient of the prolonged training and was not contented till he secured a commission in the Royal Garrison Artillery and was sent to France.
It was this compelling impulse, since he was a soldier, to be the real thing and share in the worst that befell his comrades, that took him to his death during the British advance in April 1917. 'For,' says his friend John Freeman, 'in France he was detached from his battery for staff duties, and was dissatisfied until he had succeeded in returning to his old post of danger. Just the same scrupulous spirit had moved him years before when he gave up a permanent appointment sans duties, because there was no way in which he could earn or was expected to earn his pay. There were things he could not endure; no one who knew him could be surprised.' He volunteered for the dangerous work of serving on an observation post, and was killed by a shell.
Remembering him now, one recalls the subdued, deliberate voice, the slow, flickering smile, the intentness of his listening face, the quiet, conversational humour that was always at its best in small companies, and recalls, too, how there was mostly about him that air of settled thoughtfulness, easily mistaken for melancholy, which comes upon men given to solitary walks and lonely self-communings. His solitary country walks, in sun or rain or wind, the things he saw, people he met, dreams he had and all his lonely self-communings by the way have passed into his verse and made it intimately characteristic of him. Its wistfulness, its prevailing note of sadness are as much himself as are its delight in old English place-names, in natural beauty, in quaint touches of rural character. 'Melancholy' recaptures exactly the curious sense of remoteness from everyday life that is induced by a day's wandering uncompanioned. Now and again the note of melancholy deepens to a dark foreboding that he is nearing the end of his world, as in 'Early One Morning'—
...The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet,
The only sweet thing that is not also fleet.
I 'm bound away for ever,
Away somewhere, away for ever—
and in 'Lights Out':
I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose...
Here love ends,
Despair, ambition ends,
All pleasure and all trouble,
Although most sweet or bitter,
Here ends in sleep that is sweeter
Than tasks most noble.
There is not any book
Or face of dearest look
That I would not turn from now
To go into the unknown
I must enter and leave alone
I know not how.
The tall forest towers;
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf;
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way
And this feeling that he is looking his last on things recurs less elusively in such lines as—
Never again, perhaps, after to-morrow shall
I see these homely streets, these church windows alight,
Not a man or woman or child among them all;
But it is All-Friends'-Night, a traveller's good-night.
All his poems were written in the atmosphere of war, during his training days or while he was at the front, but apart from a rousing call in 'The Trumpet'—
Open your eyes to the air
That has washed the eyes of the stars
Through all the dewy night:
Up with the light,
To the old wars;
the 'In Memoriam' quatrain for Easter 1915—
The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them, and will do never again—
and apart from a stray line or so glooming in some picture of country life, like a cloud that drifts momentarily across the sun, there is little of the influence of war in them—less than there is in the songs of Francis Ledwidge. Both were lovers of nature and poured their love of her into verse of an exquisite simplicity, but Thomas was the more reticent, the more scholarly; he had not Ledwidge's artlessness, and though he had the same emotional tenderness was not so simply unreserved in revealing it. The war stirred both of them profoundly and absorbed their energies, but whenever they had leisure to withdraw into themselves, for them, as for others of their temper, old sources of inspiration reopened, old habits of thought closed round them again, and in such hours of respite they returned to the familiar inner life from which they had been exiled, and the war dwindled to nothing but a weeping of rain on the window, a wind that wailed in the darkness and rattled at the door which shut it out.