Some soldier poets/R. E. Vernède

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Self-praise is no recommendation, neither is a profession of patriotism; besides, the Germans have raised such a pother over theirs that silence would seem enjoined on all self-respecting men, for fear of even distantly resembling those blatant deluded souls. "The last resource of a scoundrel," Doctor Johnson called these professions of devotion to one's country; and Gilbert laughed them down with his—

"In spite of all temptations
To belong to other nations. . . ."

We are what we are in this respect, neither by choice nor yet by merit, but by necessity. Most of us could not betray our country even if we were born treacherous, the situation would be too strong for us; and it is only some unusual situation which can make praise for patriotic action due to a good man, or turn a weak man into a traitor. No doubt we were all pro-German to the extent of our failings; for nothing cumbers or hinders a country more than the shortcomings common to the majority of its people. Yet how easily intelligent men are lured away to indulge in this odious rhetoric! How sane the common soldier is in this; "Blighty"[1] is his name for the mother isle. No name could be more exactly deserved; for a country is always, by collective action, blighting the best hopes and virtues of its sons; and yet they feel for it the affection expressed in a pet name as for some impossible old landlady who has contributed to all the happiness they have known.

R. E. Vernède was a peace lover quite unfamiliar with weapons, over forty and married, yet he enlisted in 1914. He was a man of remarkable intellectual and moral delicacy, and yet his muse returns to this theme of patriotism, as a moth haunts a candle. He had deserved esteem for several works in prose, and his friends made sure that in time a more general and generous acknowledgment would accrue to him. He was of French descent, and these poems[2] show a fine sense for literary craftsmanship. The war made a poet of him, for the verses written prior to it are comparatively unambitious. Perhaps the lyrical impulse aroused was younger than the rest of his mind, or was it some French traditional reliance on trumpet-calls that set him toot-tooting?

"Oh War-lord of the Western Huns—that Army of Sir John's
Your legions know it, do they not? They drove it back from Mons—
'Twas small enough. . . too small perhaps. . . the British line is thin. . .
It won't seem quite so little when it's marching through Berlin."

Surely Vernède cannot have voiced this boast for his own satisfaction. Do we listen to one for whom "anything pretentious and pompous was a target" when we read—

"The sea is God's—and England,
England shall keep it free"?

Surely such things are intended to reach duller ears than his own. Imagine this ardent dreamer, suddenly surrounded with "Tommies," gaining rapid ascendancy over them by his moral elevation, but at the same time aching to express their inarticulate enthusiasms for them. An excellent motive, but the Muses have decreed that words and images must fascinate us before we can enthral others with them. We are told that "he insists on keeping sharp the blade of indignation"; but the Germans did that for us far better. Indignation has a grand force, but one which must owe nothing to self-culture; to nurse it is to corrupt it—is indeed one of the knavish tricks of Prussian policy.

I cannot help feeling that the Kaiser has done for the word "God" very much what "über alles" has done for professions of patriotism. Yet Vernède raps it out with all the assurance of a bishop. To-day it either means too much or too little for frequent use, save when addressing those who, like children, belong to an earlier world. The idea of Providence has become too simple, too many relations are implied to be so grouped, just as the idea of England has become too complex for Britannia's outfit. The country that triumphed over Napoleon was worse than an enemy to masses of her people under Castlereagh, and this and other contradictions subsist, though they are not quite so glaring.

Vernède had been used to complain playfully that life was humdrum—that is, he was one of those many gifted men of whom England, to her shame, made no good use, damping their energies with the huge sponge of her lethargic materialism. His old schoolfellow, Mr G. K. Chesterton, has told us: "No man could look more lazy and no man was more active. He would move as swiftly as a leopard from something like sleep to something too unexpected to be called gymnastics. It was so that he passed from the English country life he loved so much, with its gardening and dreaming, to an ambush and a German gun."

He published two or three not quite successful novels, visited India and Canada, and wrote pleasantly of what he had seen. He played tennis, gardened and occasionally walked many miles very fast. But none of these things could absorb him. He was grateful for them, but not content with them. In thanking your country for such a life, a slight extravagance of compliment is gracious, but he would probably never have used it if she had not suddenly accepted from him the total dedication of himself; he would have felt restrained by the fact that though she kept him and his peers in clover, she was keeping far greater numbers in want.


A PETITION

All that a man might ask thou has given me, England,
Birth-right and happy childhood's long heartsease,
And love whose range is deep beyond all sounding,
And wider than all seas.


A heart to front the world and find God in it,
Eyes blind enow, but not too blind to see
The lovely things behind the dross and darkness,
And lovelier things to be.


And friends whose loyalty time nor death shall weaken,
And quenchless hope and laughter's golden store;
All that a man might ask thou has given me, England,
Yet grant thou one thing more:


That now when envious foes would spoil thy splendour,
Unversed in arms, a dreamer such as I
May in thy ranks be deemed not all unworthy,
England, for thee to die.

This chance to use himself thoroughly and to adventure greatly filled him with enthusiasm and hope. Emotion is simple-minded, and for a moment his world seemed all of one piece; as broad meadows may be run together by a flood, everything was merged in a shining mirror of the uplifted sky. Still it is reassuring to notice by the dates of his poems that his landmarks were reappearing and that Germany and England are no longer just black and white. By December, 1916, he strikes truer, less complacent notes:

"We have failed—we have been more weak than these betrayers—
In strength or in faith we have failed; our pride was vain.
How can we rest who have not slain the slayers?
What peace for us, who have seen Thy children slain?


Hark, the roar grows. . . the thunders reawaken—
We ask one thing, Lord, only one thing now:
Hearts high as theirs, who went to death unshaken,
Courage like theirs to make and keep their vow.


To stay not till these hosts whom mercies harden,
Who know no glory save of sword and fire,
Find in our fire the splendour of Thy pardon,
Meet from our steel the mercy they desire. . . .


Then to our children there shall be no handing
Of fates so vain—of passions so abhorr'd. . .
But Peace. . . the Peace which passeth understanding. . .
Not in our time. . . but in their time, O Lord."

And later still we have:


A LISTENING POST

The sun's a red ball in the oak
And all the grass is grey with dew.
Awhile ago a blackbird spoke—
He didn't know the world's askew.


And yonder rifleman and I
Wait here behind the misty trees,
To shoot the first man that goes by,
Our rifles ready on our knees.


How could he know that if we fail
The world may lie in chains for years
And England be a bygone Tale
And right be wrong, and laughter tears?


Strange that this bird sits there and sings
While we must only sit and plan—
Who are so much the higher things—
The murder of our fellow-man. . . .


But maybe God will cause to be—
Who brought forth sweetness from the strong—
Out of our discords harmony
Sweeter than that bird's song.

Though the rousing of Vernède's lyrical impulse was at first coincident with loss of discrimination, and might be condemned as an attempt to shout with the crowd, I find its excuse, if not its justification, in that ardent sympathy that at first wraps the confused soul in cloud, but will, like a late September morning by 10 a.m., grow glorious as a summer day. Readers only feel the insult of not being treated as an author's equals, in proportion as they are his peers. Now Vernède's peers can look after themselves, but the men he looked after in that hell at the front needed him, and needed such as he was, more than any other kind of officer. He was not artist enough to reconcile both these claims, but he chose the most important. All that he says of his friend we can safely transfer to himself; the testimony of his brother officers is our warrant.

 

To F. G. S.

("Seriously wounded")

Peaks that you dreamed of, hills your heart has climbed on,
Never your feet shall climb, your eyes shall see;
All your life long you must tread lowly places,
Limping for England; well—so let it be.


We know your heart's too high for any grudging.
More than she asked, you gladly gave to her:
What tho' its streets you'll tramp instead of snow-fields,
You'll be the cheeriest, as you always were.


Yes, and you'll shoulder all our packs—we know you—
And none will guess you're wearied night or day—
Yes, you'll lift lots of lame dogs over fences,
Who might have lifted you, for that's your way.


All your life long—no matter—so you've chosen.
Pity you? Never—that were waste indeed—
Who up hills higher than the Alps you loved so
All your life long will point the way and lead.

Such men are mature in a sense that most of us are not. The joy of recognising their characters, the joy felt in these verses, is in quality like that we might receive from a fine picture in which a strong man and a number of lads were shown hauling a boat up the beach—their muscular developments contrasted, their attitudes rhythmically applied to a common task. So, like a charm, the presense of these grown-up souls organises and increases our strength. Even Vernède's trumpet-calls give me glimpses of a man whole-heartedly playing with children in time he was free to give to some congenial hobby. What though his boyishness be a little out of fashion as compared with theirs! He succeeds and keeps them even-tempered, brave and loyal. Several of these poems witness that he saw his "Tommies" as they were. What if the battle songs he wrote are not such as can ever quite win their favour, and can hardly better content a more refined public? since for those, as for these, his life and death were his best poem. He had been ready to appreciate all his men's virtues and to make even all their deficiencies. They were his inspiration and he was theirs. This give and take between the leader and the led is more trustworthy than the rigidity of discipline, replacing it by life—a wonder of creation comparable to a master work in art. Augmented living ought perhaps always to precede a literary production which should be the spirit's pæan for victory—for wider and more delicate relations achieved—though at times it has been the bitter song of the vanquished, declaring that his loss is greater and other than the victor's gain. That grander pulse was throbbing through Vernède's veins, as his more frequent bursts of song and ever truer note testify; the poet liberated in him was rehearsing the adequate lay which we shall never hear—and indeed the enemy did not gain by his death anything commensurate with what we have lost, even though such losses should kindle us more finely than that masterpiece unheard, unsung and for ever overdue could have done! In two stanzas to his wife which now dedicate the book, Vernède himself underlines the difference between promises and deeds, between words and the seal of death:

"What shall I bring to you, wife of mine,
When I come back from the war?
A ribbon your dear brown hair to twine?
A shawl from a Berlin store?
Say, shall I choose you some Prussian hack
When the Uhlans we o'erwhelm?
Shall I bring you a Potsdam goblet back
And the crest from a prince's helm?


Little you'd care what I laid at your feet,
Ribbon or crest or shawl—
What if I bring you nothing, sweet,
Nor maybe come home at all?
Ah, but you'll know, Brave Heart, you'll know
Two things I'll have kept to send:
Mine honour for which you bade me go
And my love—my love to the end."

  1. "Blighty" is derived from the Arabic and hence Urdu (camp language) of the Mogul soldiery, Viláyat meaning a country, which has come in India to designate England or Europe, and the adjective Viláyati, English. But the British soldier in adopting the word for home or England accepted also half humorously the sense associated with its deformed pronunciation.
  2. War Poems and Other Verses. By R. E. Vernède. Heinemann. 3s. 6d. Quotations by permission of Mrs C. H. Vernède.