For remembrance: soldier poets who have fallen in the war/Chapter 4
It was impossible that the altruistic enthusiasm which nerved and ennobled our people in the hour of our setting forth on the great quest, could remain burning at white heat through the hardship and disillusion, the wearing agony and inhuman horrors of over four long years of war. After the eager swiftness of the first onset, our soldiers settled down to a dogged endurance of the filth and peril and tedium of trench warfare, to a fixed determination of 'seeing it through,' which was but the old enthusiasm adapting itself to circumstances and manifesting itself in a sober and more enduring form. This change of mood which came over the soldiers came also over the songs which so many in their ranks were writing. The songs of those later days no longer or seldom reiterate the shining ideals for which the singers were fighting, but take these for granted, and, instead, expose and denounce with stern outspokenness the injustice, the madness, the tragic misery and indescribable beastliness of war, and, so revealing it, justify and insist upon the realisation of that ideal of ending it for ever, which still lived in their hearts unquenchable and had become the more potent because they had done with clothing it in words and were stubbornly putting it into action.
But the idealism that rings like a trumpet call through so much of the earlier poetry is a heartening note in the scholarly verse of Captain Stanley Russell, who died, as he had lived, in the service of humanity, for the freedom and justice that are the watchwords of the great Leader
Under whose banners he had fought so long.
Trained for the Nonconformist Ministry, Stanley Russell was, from 1910 to 1913, successively Assistant Minister and co-Pastor of Ullet Road Church, Liverpool. After his marriage in 1913, he devoted himself to literary work and occasional preaching. In September 1914 he enlisted as a private in the Liverpool 'Pals' Battalion, and presently, having received a commission in the 1st Herefordshires, went with his regiment into the inferno of Suvla Bay, whence he was invalided home suffering with enteric. Later, as soon as he was sufficiently recovered, he was sent to join our army in Palestine, where he received the Military Cross for his gallantry in the first attack on Gaza, in April 1917, and was killed in action on the 6th November in that year. His friend, the Rev. Arnold H. Lewis, who is publishing a Memoir of Captain Russell, describes him as 'a man of great personal charm and variously gifted; an accomplished reciter, a speaker and preacher of originality and power, a clever writer. He was unusually handsome and of a most engaging address. Unfailing good temper and a deep understanding of and love for human nature and an indomitable spirit gave him influence and leadership alike at the University, in the Church, and in the Army.'
Another poet, Bernard Pitt, who went to war in the same fine spirit, is as idealistic in some of his letters and poems as Rupert Brooke or John Streets, yet at times he is almost as bitterly resentful as Siegfried Sassoon of the hideous realities of battle. Born at Strand-on-the-Green, in June 1881, he was educated at the Middlesex Council School, Isleworth, trained for the teaching profession at the Borough Road Training College, and took his B.A. and M.A. degrees at the London University. From his father he inherited a love of books, and from his mother a calm, equable temperament. His earliest years were spent at Strand-on-the-Green, in a small, low-ceiled, book-lined house set in a garden behind an ivy-clad wall, from beyond which he could hear the traffic of the Thames and the noises of a barge-builder's yard. This home and its sanctity were of the things he went to fight for, as he tells you in his verses, 'Strand-on-the-Green':
When I shall fight and hurl myself at the foe
With a heart seething with anger, leaping with pride,
I will launch one well-aimed shot, I will drive one blow
For a dear little nook that I know of, down by Thames' side.
There are the red-tiled roofs with whitened walls,
There are green willows and poplars along the bank,
And where the full tide laps and the swift ebb falls
There are the barges a-building, rank on rank.
The adzes glint on the planking, the braziers gleam
In the smoke of driftwood fires and the morning haze,
And the grey longshoremen nod as they watch the stream,
And the savour of tar is keen in the alley-ways.
Here have the men of my name walked at evening's end,
Here have I loitered and dreamed through the blue noontide,
Here are my heart-strings knit; and if I can defend
They shall build their barges for ever down by Thames' side.
He began his professional career as a master at the Kew Schools; later he was a master at Sir J. Williamson's Mathematical School, Rochester, and finally at the Coopers' Company School, Bow. During the latter period, from 1912, he also conducted a class in English Literature at the Working Men's College, St. Pancras, the College that was founded in 1854 by Frederick Denison Maurice. 'The love of all fair things was in him from the beginning,' says one who knew him intimately, 'and it was inevitable that when the call came he, choosing of the duties that lay before him that which was the greatest, should leave wife and little children and the profession he loved, and go to play a man's part in the great Crusade. The outbreak of war revealed a new side of his character. He joined one of the volunteer corps and worked with the keenest enthusiasm, finally obtaining a commission in the Border Regiment in April 1915. In his private life he was a most devoted husband and father, a brilliant conversationalist, with the gift of imparting his great store of learning without giving any idea that he was teaching.' The men of his class at the College, says a prefatory note to his Essays, Poems, and Letters, are 'still in love with Pitt and hankering after the return of their lost leader.' One of his students, in a number of the College Journal published just after Bernard Pitt's death, bears testimony to the fineness of his character, the range and depth of his knowledge of literature, the efficacy of his comradely, unconventional method of teaching, and the affectionate regard in which all his pupils held him. 'When the War came,' writes this one of his class, 'there was a great change. He was restless, and we were amazed to find that he had joined the Colours. He was the last man, we thought, that the War would call upon; he was among the first. How he bore himself as a soldier is told elsewhere. We are proud of him—our man, our leader.... His students feel that they owe a debt to the College. By coming there they knew Bernard Pitt.'
Before the end of 1915 he was in France serving as a trench mortar officer, and in February 1916 was given command of a battery. In the following April he was killed by a shell. Lively, high-spirited gossip alternates in his letters with wryly, sometimes grimly, whimsical descriptions of his surroundings. I have read no letters from the front that picture more graphically the everyday life behind the lines and in the trenches. From what he writes in jest or earnest of his brother officers, his men, and his own tireless activities and eager resolve to carry out his duties and give the enemy no rest, you are the better able to appreciate what his Brigadier-General wrote of his dash and pluck, and how 'whenever the Germans appeared to be getting particularly annoyed, the men would say, "Oh, it 's that little trench mortar officer at them with his guns."' But if he could tell of his doings and sufferings with a delightfully playful humour and make light of hardships and miseries—'It rains nearly all of every day, and the mud is vile,' he writes to his sister, 'but I am so glad to be out here'—at other times he sketches the dreadful world in which he is living in phrases that are nakedly and startlingly realistic.
'How is the College doing in these hard times?' he asks in a letter to a friend connected with it. 'It hardly seems credible that it still exists, with so many of its tutors and students away: and yet I so often feel that the reality is Education and Fraternity, while all this horror of war is a transient appearance of the impossible. Such a glance into the chaos that man can make, unless love is his guiding principle, is indeed a terrifying experience. I am now in a hilly, wooded region, like the skirts of the Kentish Downs, with copses full of anemones and delicate periwinkles, and the sapling hazels and willows tasselled and downy with catkins and buds. A mile away is a village, shattered and wasted, and beyond that a sight more shocking than the ruin of human work, a ghastly wood where the broken trunks and splintered branches take on weird and diabolical forms. It is the Bois de Souchez. The ground round about is poisoned with human relics, limbs and bundles of clothes filled with rotten flesh, and even those poor remains of men which pious hands have buried are daily disinterred by plunging shells. S—— itself is merely a heap of bricks and stones, and it reeks to heaven of mortality. Do you wonder that, reading Wordsworth this afternoon in a clearing of the unpolluted woodlands, and marking the lovely faded colours on the wings of hibernated butterflies, and their soft motions, I felt a disgust, even to sickness, of the appalling wickedness of war. Sometimes one has great need of a strength which is not in one's own power to use, but is a grace of God.'
He has put something of those abhorrent sights and the feeling they stirred in him into one of the few poems he wrote during the war, and it contrasts sharply with the beauty and tenderness that are in his earlier verse—in the gracefully fanciful 'Aphrodite in the Cloister,' in the charming song of love, 'After Evensong'—
Bend over me in dreams;
Sweep with thy loosened hair
My lips, as though soft streams
Lavished cool wavelets there....
Bend over me in light
As holy angels do.
For my last thought this night,
My last prayer, were for you...
Heavy scent of orchard, stubblefield, and byre
Load the chilly twilight, load the brooding mind....
That other, darker picture comes in his last letter home, written two days before he fell between Souchez and Givenchy, when, after describing near-by valleys and crests and upland copses that are 'a delight to the eye,' he goes on: 'But on one's way to the line there is the ghastly slope of ——, where lines of German corpses lie unburied, naked bones, curls of hair clinging to bleached skulls, lipless teeth, boots which the spoiler has relinquished, so set are the stiffened legs and feet within them. We harden our hearts. The French artillery captain, who accompanies us, speaks my mind: "I never let myself feel sorrow over dead Boches. They wanted the war." And so to the village and wood of S——, heaps of bricks and stones and charred rafters, smashed trees, shell-holes full of putrid water, a stench of rotten and half-calcined corpses. The place lies open to hostile eyes, and nothing can be done to cleanse it. I have looked at the wreck until my imagination is obsessed by it, but verse can purge the soul of much dangerous thought.' And he copies into the letter the last of his poems:
The Wood of Souchez
The coppices of Aylesford are beautiful in Spring;
Anemone and primrose delay the careless breeze.
The throstles try their grace-notes while woodland freshets sing,
The dewy catkins glisten on virgin-slender trees,
And England, my dear England, has many walks like these.
No flowers bloom in the ruins of this accursed wood,
Through writhen, sphntered branches the shrapnel bullets hiss;
There are no leafy nooks where a bird may rear her brood;
The reek of rotten flesh taints the pools where water is—
But England, my dear England, shall know no wood like this.
They fought for honour, these soldier poets, and for lofty principles of right and liberty, but nearly always you may glimpse in their verses that they fought also for a simple, natural love of home or some place in the homeland which they had given their hearts to and were ready to keep inviolate with their lives. As Kipling has it,
God gave all men all earth to love,
But, since our hearts are small,
Ordained for each one spot should prove
Beloved over all,
We who have loved thee in days long over,
Mistress immortal and Queen of our hearts;
With the passionate strength of a youthful lover
Take, ere for ever the glow departs,
Ere the flaming glead of our heart's devotion
Flicker and fail as the night blows chill,
The homage that stirs no mock emotion,
'Tis thine, our Mother, to claim it still....
Then whether the sharp death face us daily,
Thy youthful warriors loved of thee,
Thy towers and palaces smiling gaily,
In vision, our youthful eyes may see:
For all the hours of life and pleasure,
For all the beauty by thee made known,
We pay thee in no stinted measure,
But gladly lay our young lives down.
Donald Johnson was born in 1890 and was educated, till he was seventeen, at Caterham. 'He was a son of the Manse,' says Mr. P. Giles, in a preface to his Poems. 'His home was at Saffron Walden.... As he was the youngest of four brothers it was necessary that he should be a teacher for some years before he could proceed to the University. In 1911 he came into residence at Cambridge, having been elected to a sizarship at Emmanuel College, and read for the Historical Tripos during his first two years.' In 1914 he won the Chancellor's Medal for English Verse with 'The Southern Pole,' a poem on Captain Scott's expeditions, and was devoting himself to a special study of the text of Chaucer when, by the end of the year, the war called him into the Army. A lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment, he crossed to France at the end of 1915, and in the following year fell leading his men in battle. 'A trench had to be held at all costs and the Germans prevented from advancing. Johnson without hesitation undertook the task but bade his friends good-bye, fully certain that he should not return.' The prophecy of his sonnet, 'Spring, 1915,' had so come to fulfilment, for looking then on the blossoming of the lilac and laburnum he had told himself—
Next year these shall renew their youth, but thou
No more may'st look upon the bursting flowers,
Nor daze thy senses with the breaths of Spring:
Silent thou 'lt lie throughout the endless hours;
And all the pangs of earth's awakening
Shall not uncalm the stillness of thy brow.
You may learn from his poems that he was in love with life, and finely sensitive to the beauty of all that part of the world that human hands have not made. Mr. Giles hints that when in his verse on classical themes, 'Hylas' and 'Persephone,' he is touching in descriptions of scenes in Thessaly or Sicily, he is really describing the woods and streams that were round about his home at Saffron Walden. Through his poems, too, is a recurring sense of the shortness of life, the pathos of mortality, which is the whole burden of his 'Sunt Lacrimæ Rerum'—
O to think that Beauty liveth
Such a little while....
O to think that Love can ever
Feel the ice of Death....
O to think that Beauty dieth
Like a thing of dross,
Broken in the graveway lieth
Under leaf and moss,
All its passion and delight
Quenched amid the voiceless night.
Howbeit, the keynote of his verse is not despair nor sadness but that deep love of beauty and a hope of the budding morrow at midnight. Many of his poems were written at the front, 'some in the trenches on the battlefield whence the author did not return'; and not even Noel Hodgson's '' is inspired with a humbler, loftier faith, a larger spirit of humanity, than is Donald Johnson's 'Battle Hymn':
Lord God of battle and of pain,
Of triumph and defeat,
Our human pride, our strength's disdain
Judge from Thy mercy-seat;
Turn Thou our blows of bitter death
To Thine appointed end;
Open our eyes to see beneath
Each honest foe a friend....
Father and Lord of friend and foe,
All-seeing and all-wise,
Thy balm to dying hearts bestow,
Thy sight to sightless eyes;
To the dear dead give life, where pain
And death no more dismay,
Where, amid Love's long terrorless reign,
All tears are wiped away.
Donald Johnson had written verse before he became a soldier, but Jeffery Day was one of the many poets who were cradled into poetry by the war. Born at St. Ives in 1896, educated at Sandroyd House and at Repton, he was only eighteen when he obtained a commission as a sub-lieutenant in the R.N.A.S. He showed exceptional skill as a pilot, and, says the Memoir in his Poems and Rhymes, he 'was chosen for work at sea that needed high technical accomplishment.' But, keen to take a hand in the desperate struggle on the Western front, he was not satisfied till he had managed to get transferred to a fighting squadron in France, and before long he won fame there as a fighter, and was awarded the D.S.C. 'for great skill and bravery as a fighting pilot,' but when this award was gazetted he had already fallen in battle. On the 27th February 1918, says the report of his commanding officer, 'he was shot down by six German aircraft which he attacked single-handed out to sea.' Wishing to break the enemy's formation, and so make it easier for his less-experienced followers to attack, he had outdistanced his flight. 'He hit the enemy and they hit his machine, which burst into flames; but, not a bit flurried, he nose-dived, flattened out, and landed perfectly on the water. He climbed out of his machine and waved his fellow-pilots back to their base; being in aeroplanes (not sea-planes) they could not assist him.' Search parties were sent out to his rescue immediately, but he was seen no more.
There are stories of his daring, his wonderful courage, his chivalry, his ready self-sacrifice, his unfailing cheerfulness and high spirits. A friend who wrote of him while he lived, speaks of his impetuous yet delicate sympathy with all vital and beautiful things. 'Vitality runs out of him in a bubbling stream. He has more enjoyment of all things worth enjoying and he is better able to express his enjoyment than anybody I ever knew.... When he speaks of some wonderful flight through clouds and sunshine I can feel the air rushing past me and revel with him in the miracles of light and colour he has seen.' Yet he found him 'happiest when he is talking about country places and especially about his own countryside of river, fen and mere.' It was this friend who, seeing in Jeffery Day 'a nature made after the manner of Philip Sidney, poet and knight in one,' and recognising the poetic quality of his mind, more in his conversation than in the gay, spirited rhymes he began to write in those days to amuse the ward-room, urged him to put his thoughts and experiences of flying into verse. The result was his first poem, 'On the Wings of the Morning':
A sudden roar, a mighty rushing sound,
a jolt or two, a smoothly sliding rise,
a jumbled blur of disappearing ground,
and then all sense of motion slowly dies.
Quiet and calm, the earth slips past below,
as underneath a bridge still waters flow....
a first poem as remarkable for its technical finish as for its graphic, imaginative realism. He followed this, a few months later, with 'An Airman's Dream,' which was, as he says in a scribbled note in his note-book, written after he had been reading Rupert Brooke's '.' From earliest childhood, he adds, 'I had sent myself to sleep and endured dull sermons by thinking of my house and its surroundings,' and it is a vision of these that comes to him again in the air:
When I am wearied through and through,
and all the things I have to do
are senseless, peevish little things,
my mind escapes on happier wings
to an old house that is mine own,
lichen-kissed and overgrown;
with gables here and gables there
and tapered chimneys everywhere,
with millstone hearths for burning logs,
and kettles singing from the dogs,
with faintest taint of willow smoke,
and rough-hewn beams of darkened oak,
with unexpected steps and nooks,
and cases full of leather books—
soft water-colours that I love,
and in the bedrooms up above
large four-post beds and lots of air,
where I may lie without a care
and hear the rustle of the leaves
and starlings fighting in the eaves....
In his third poem, 'To My Brother,' he strikes a deeper note and, with the same habit of natural, apparently unpremeditated thought, shows a growth in the easy mastery of expression—
At first, when unaccustomed to death's sting,
I thought that, should you die, each sweetest thing,
each thing of any merit on this earth,
would perish also, beauty, love and mirth:
and that the world, despoiled and God-forsaken,
its glories gone, its greater treasures taken,
would sink into a slough of apathy
and there remain into eternity....
And when one day the aching blow did fall,
for many days I did not live at all....
I prayed that God might give me power to sever
your sad remembrance from my mind for ever.
'Never again shall I have heart to do
the things in which we took delight, we two.
I cannot bear the cross. Oh, to forget
the haunting vision of the past!' and yet
surely it were a far more noble thing
to keep your memories all fresh as Spring,
to do again the things that we held dear
and thus to feel your spirit ever near.
This I will do when peace shall come again—
peace and return, to ease my heart of pain....
But those days of peace and return were never to come for him. He was twenty-two when he died, and there is enough in this small sheaf of his verse to lift him to an honoured niche in the Valhalla of those inheritors of unfulfilled renown who have gone down among the waste and wreckage of the war. His lighter air songs, 'The Call of the Air,' 'Dawn,' 'The Joys of Flying,' are alive with a buoyant gaiety and the exhilaration of flight, and only once, in 'North Sea,' does he brood on the grim horrors of his perilous work.
There is no bitterness in his brooding; only an intense realisation of the hideous side of warfare; but in some of the most striking verse of Henry Lamont Simpson and Cameron Wilson there is the bitterness, the stern or satirical resentment, which are absent from all the earliest war poetry, but enter more and more into it as the dark years pass, and are present, more or less, in most of the soldier-poetry that was written towards the last. The change did not come of weariness, of any loss of faith in the cause or slackening of the resolute will to go through to the end and to end in victory; it came of the long-drawn agony, the multitudinous slaughter, the incalculable squandering of young and splendid life, and was a profound protest against the murderous insanity of that destruction, against the blundering, obsolete ruling systems that had plunged the world into such a bloody chaos. It was the revolt of the modern against the ancient spirit, of the civilised against a reversion to barbarism, and the young, with all their passion for romance and transfiguring idealism, were swifter to join in this rational revolt than were many of our poets and others who are old enough to be wiser.
Henry Lamont Simpson was a year younger than Jeffery Day when he was killed in action at Hazebrouck. He was twenty, and the war had already opened his eyes and wakened terrible thoughts in him when he wrote his starkly realistic 'Casualty List,' and saw not the glory of his friend's death on the field, but 'the obvious murderous silliness' of it, and cried out in impotent anger—
How long, how long
shall there be Something
that can grind the faces of poor men
to an ultimate uniformity of dullness
and grinning trivial meanness?
Or pitchfork them at will
(cheering and singing patriotic doggerel)
to a stinking hell,
to crash about for a little,
till the inevitable comes,
and crushes them
And a year earlier, before he had obtained his commission, watching a draft depart for the front, 'silently, and with no song at all,' though he could see some compensation in death after the 'clean-souled strife' to which they were going, he had it in him to
'hate the gods that still can send
Men to such harvesting of bloody grain.'
This is far from being the outlook upon war of the ordinary boy of nineteen; but you cannot read Henry Simpson's poems without knowing he was no ordinary boy. His home was at Crosby-on-Eden, Carlisle, where he was born in June 1897. He became a scholar of Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1915. Mr. H. C. Duffin, who was his English master during his last four years at Carlisle School, bears testimony to his fine, swift, vivacious spirit and the firm-set 'sanity and strength' of his character. 'It was sheer joy,' he writes, 'to watch his lambent mind playing round his fellows in the not undistinguished Sixth of which he was undisputed head at school; and yet withal an incomparable modesty. The fountain of his laughing voice will fall for ever on our ears. His face—clean cut as a cameo under the black hair—was the index of his mind; such beauty could not but be the complement of a life and soul of rare perfection. And indeed he was the fairest of his own thoughts; his life was the loveliest of his lyrics. And yet you are to conceive one who, up to the very end, was everything that we mean by healthy boyhood.'
He received his commission in the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers in June 1917, and went soon after to France. All the poems in his book, Moods and Tenses, were written between October 1914 and June 1918; one gathers that he wrote other and some earlier verse which his own judgment and that of his editor excluded. Though in the first half of his book there are fanciful little songs on the happier things of earth, his thoughts turn again and again to the pity and mystery of death and the evil of war; but in what he wrote of these later, after he was out in the battle line, there is a vivider sense of reality, a growth and sudden maturity of feeling, of knowledge, of imaginative sympathy. 'The shock of war—though for a time it killed in him all desire to write—sent his power along new channels.' He found himself, as a poet, in 'the grisly experience of the Western front—though he hated it, as all good men must hate such hateful things,' and he shaped the tragedy of those experiences, the passion of that hatred, into verse that is as nakedly simple in form as it is in phrase and in sincerity. It is the very heart of sorrow and angry compassion that speak in the broken lines of his 'Casualty List,' and, again, in the haunting picture, etched sharply in his 'Last Nocturne,' of how he was hurrying at night, with search-lights stabbing the sky and star-flares hovering overhead, until, passing under the darkness of trees, he stumbled and looked down on a figure at his feet—
His face was cold,
And very white;
There was no blood.
I grew old
In the wood.
He was young,
But lips the same
As lips have sung
Often with me.
I whispered the name
Of the friend whose face
Was so like his;
But never a sound
In the dim place
Under the trees
Then he curses all singing there, with the mad moon searching for the gleam
Of dead faces
Under the trees
In the trampled grass....
as in his 'Last Song,' written three days before the 'Nocturne,' he had said that all his songs had left him—they could not stay 'among the filth and weariness of the dead'—
Only a madman sings
When half of his friends lie asleep for the rain and the dew.
There are moods as dark and as bitter in the poems of Cameron Wilson, but there is not less of tenderness and spiritual beauty in them, with the added charm of a quaint humour and a serene, uplifting philosophy. Before the war he was a schoolmaster, as the delightfully playful-serious little series of poems, 'The Sentimental Schoolmaster,' at the end of his Magpies in Picardy, might of itself have told you, for it could have been written only by a real schoolmaster thinking of real boys who had been his pupils. No sooner was the war-drum sounding than he enlisted, in August 1914, in the Grenadier Guards; and he had seen much service and was a Captain of the Sherwood Foresters when he was killed in France on the 23rd March 1918.
If he had not been a true idealist, a patriot whose love of country was only part of a larger love of humanity, he would not have been impelled to go so quickly and voluntarily to the defence of Belgium, to pit his strength and life against the power of wrong when it seemed so much mightier than right. But he was a man, and eager to take a man's good way in that business. He went to war because he hated it, and saw no virtue in standing aside, leaving the outlaws who made war free to filch what they would of the world, and slay and ravage and triumph unopposed. He fought not for the lust of fighting, but for the joy of breaking, once for all, those who did fight for the lust of it. How deeply he was stirred by the horror and cruelty inseparable from that lust, and from the glory that traditionally rewards whoso survives to go on rejoicing, you may read in those lines of his picturing the soldier looking up at a lark in the Spring sky and thinking of his waking farm in England:
The deep thatch of the roof—all shadow-flecked—
The clank of pails at the pump ... the day begun.
'After the war ...,' he thought....
And then a sound grew out of the morning,
And a shell came, moving a destined way,
Thin and swift and lustful, making its moan.
A moment his brave white body knew the Spring,
The next it lay
In a red ruin of blood and guts and bone.
Oh! nothing was tortured there! Nothing could know
How death blasphemed all men and their high birth
With his obscenities. Already moved,
Within those shattered tissues, that dim force
Which is the ancient alchemy of Earth,
Changing him to the very flowers he loved.
'Nothing was tortured there!' Oh, pretty thought!
When God Himself might well bow down his head
And hide his haunted eyes before the dead.
Yet this irony and anger are not more characteristic of him than are the tenderness in such a snatch of song as—
Dear, if your blinded eyes could see
The path my thoughts have worn to you...
In your green silence there
You see the world pass like a lean old witch,
You watch the stars at night, and you may share
The small fierce love wherein the soil is rich,
And know that half the gifts of God are won
By centipedes and fairies in the ditch...
nor more characteristic of him than that quaint fantasy of the sportsmen killed in battle passing through the open gates into Paradise, and—
They saw far off a little wood
Stand up against the sky.
Knee-deep in grass a great tree stood...
Some lazy cows went by....
There were some rooks sailed overhead—
And once a church-bell pealed.
'God! but it 's England,' some one said,
'And there 's a cricket-field!'
The cleanest stream a man may know
To rinse him from the taint of guns.
And if 'France, 1917,' is full of the break of the terrible things he had known, it is full too of a deeper knowledge that had come to him out of all that suffering:
On every road War spilled her hurried men,
And I saw their courage, young and eagle-strong.
They were sick for home—for far-off valley or moor,
For the little fields and lanes and the lamp-red door;
For the lit town and the traffic's husky song.
Great love I saw, though these men feared the name
And hid their greatness as a kind of shame....
I found honour here at last on the earth, where man faced man;
It reached up like a lily from the filth and flies,
It grew from war as a lily from manure.
Out of the dark it burst, undaunted, sure,
As the crocus, insolent under slaty skies,
Strikes a green sword-blade through the stubborn mould,
And throws in the teeth of winter its challenge of gold.
What these men, what he himself, in due time, died for he tells in the most poignant, most beautiful of his verses, 'On Leave.' When he landed at Folkestone, he says, neither the first bit of England nor the fields of Kent as he travelled through them had anything to say to him; but when he came at length into his own familiar county it was otherwise—
It was the red earth of Devon that called to me,
'So you 'm back, you li'l boy that us used to know!'
It was the deep, dim lanes that wind to the sea,
And the Devon streams that turn and twist and run,
And the Devon hills that stretch themselves in the sun
Like drowsy green cats watching the world below...
and remembering those of his friends who would not see these scenes again, he feels
It was for this you died: this, through the earth,
Peace and the great men peace shall make,
And dogs and children and careless mirth....
He threw his challenge of gold in the teeth of Winter for the sake of peace and home, and that all that made home dear to him might be held inviolate.
In a brief introduction to Magpies in Picardy, Mr. Harold Munro says rightly that these poems are remarkable 'as the expression of a personality,' and the personality they express is so intensely human, of such strength and charm, that one would not willingly lose anything of it that may remain to us, and is glad to learn that the letters and other prose writings of Cameron Wilson are being brought together and will presently be published.