The poet Edward Thomas died 100 years ago today at the Battle of Arras

The poet Edward Thomas died 100 years ago today at the Battle of Arras

On the road to the last resting places of three WW1 poets: https://t.co/r6KgGKQOHJ

His notebook pages are still rippled by the blast that killed him. His war diary, 1 January – 8 April 1917, is held in the National Library of Wales.

 

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‘In times like these, it’s necessary to talk about trees’

‘In times like these, it’s necessary to talk about trees’

What times are these, in which
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing!

– Bertolt Brecht, ‘To Those Who Follow in Our Wake‘, 1939

During the Christmas break, while reading Fiona Stafford’s engrossing The Long, Long Life of Trees, I was also hearing the news from Sheffield, where residents were outraged when private contractors, hired by the city council under a cost-cutting PFI, began cutting down hundreds of trees lining city streets. Now, luminaries such as Jarvis Cocker and Chris Packham are fronting a campaign to save Sheffield’s roadside trees. In the Guardian the other day, Patrick Barkham was writing about the pensioners being prosecuted under anti-trade union legislation for peacefully opposing the felling of trees in their street. His report included this striking statement by furious local and one-time member of Pulp, Richard Hawley:

This hasn’t got anything to do with politics. I’m a lifelong dyed-in-the-wool Labour voter. I was on picket lines with my dad. I don’t view protesting against the unnecessary wastage of trees as all of a sudden I’ve become fucking middle class. I know right from wrong and chopping down shit that helps you breathe is evidently wrong. We’re not talking about left or right. We’re talking about the body. It boils down to something really simple. Do you like breathing? It’s quite good. It’s called being alive. What we exhale they inhale and what we inhale they exhale. The end.

Continue reading “‘In times like these, it’s necessary to talk about trees’”

On the road to the last resting places of three WW1 poets

On the road to the last resting places of three WW1 poets

Isaac Rosenberg, ‘The Road’, 1911

The road leads me to the last resting places of three English poets whose lives were cut short by the war of 1914-18: Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen.  Along with Siegfried Sassoon’s often bitter poems of war, the verses of Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg exerted a powerful influence on me during my teens, and have – more than any other single factor – shaped my understanding of the war.  Edward Thomas came later for me, and is not really a ‘war poet’ at all, since all of his poems that deal with the war (somewhat obliquely) were written before he embarked for the Front in late January 1917. Unlike the others, he did not record his first-hand experience of the horrors of war.

Rosenberg

Isaac Rosenberg self portrait

Isaac Rosenberg, Self Portrait, 1915 (detail)

It was poems by Isaac Rosenberg such as ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ (with its ‘queer sardonic rat’) and the horrifyingly visual ‘Dead Man’s Dump’which had the most powerful effect upon when I first read them in the 1960s.  Unlike the officer-poets of the Great War like Sassoon, Blunden, Brooke  and Owen, Isaac Rosenberg was a private soldier who came from a poverty-stricken East End background.

Rosenberg’s parents were Russian Jews who had fled from pogroms in Lithuania to settle in one room in a house in Cable Street, in the heart of the Jewish community in the East End of London.  Jean Moorcroft Wilson has written of his early years:

It was an existence on the edge of destitution and would remain so for most of Isaac’s childhood and teenage years. It is against this background of severely limited horizons that we must measure his achievements. For his poverty, as much as his Jewishness, marked his life and shaped his work.

From a young age, Rosenberg was interested in both visual art and poetry but poverty forced him to leave school at 14 and take a job. His mother managed to find him an apprenticeship with an engraver (with the unlikely name of  William Blake), but Rosenberg found engraving tedious.  He took night classes in art at Birkbeck College, winning several prizes between 1907 and 1909, but longed to give up the apprenticeship to study art full-time. In 1911, three wealthy Jewish women offered to pay his fees  at the Slade School of Art, where he studied studied alongside David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth and Dora Carrington.

He was writing poetry, too, gaining some recognition with poems published in Poetry magazine on Ezra Pound’s recommendation. However, suffering from chronic bronchitis, and afraid it would worsen, Rosenberg decided to emigrate to the warmer climate of South Africa, where his sister Mina lived. It was in Cape Town that he heard that war had been declared, and wrote ‘On Receiving News of the War‘, a poem that expresses a deep sense of foreboding:

Some spirit old
Hath turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mould.

While others wrote about war as patriotic sacrifice, Rosenberg was critical of the war from its onset. According to Jon Stallworthy, writing in Anthem for Doomed Youth: Twelve Soldier Poets of the First World War, the Rosenbergs were Tolstoyans and Isaac, ‘the most vulnerable of men’, hated the idea of killing. However, Rosenberg returned to England in October 1915 to enlist in the army. Jean Moorcroft Wilson again:

When Rosenberg did finally enlist towards the end of 1915, he was entirely frank about his motives: ‘I never joined the army for patriotic reasons,’ he wrote … from his training depot. ‘Nothing can justify war. I suppose we must all fight to get the trouble over.’ Another incentive, he admitted, had been money: ‘I thought if I’d join there would be the separation allowance for my mother.’

Isaac Rosenberg, possibly taken October 1917

Isaac Rosenberg, photograph possibly taken October 1917

Private Rosenberg was eventually assigned to the 11th Battalion, The King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment. He was sent to the Somme where he was killed, aged 27, returning from a night patrol at dawn on 1 April 1918.  He was first buried in a mass grave, but in 1926, his grave was moved to Bailleul Road East Cemetery, near the village of St. Laurent-Blangy, outside Arras.  Which is where I found his grave.

Bailleul Rd East Cemetery

A general view of Bailleul Road East Cemetery

During a German offensive, the English made an attempt to capture Arras on the 28th of March 1918. Isaac’s brigade was holding the line south of Gavrelle when the front line was overwhelmed and pushed back to Fampoux. Isaac was at rest behind the line on the 28th but his company was brought up to the north of Fampoux to help reinforce the new front line. Rosenberg was killed somewhere near the village of Fampoux. He died in close combat during a German counter attack.

Buried initially in a mass grave, his body could not be identified during operations in 1926 to concentrate Commonwealth graves in Bailleul Road East Cemetery, which is why his headstone bears the words, ‘Buried near this spot’.  Whether here or in some unknown field, his remains lie where the ‘poppies whose roots are in men’s veins drop, and are ever dropping’ (‘Break of Day in the Trenches’).

Rosenberg grave

Isaac Rosenberg’s grave

Rosenberg’s headstone is engraved with the badge of the King’s Own Royal Lancashire Regiment above the star of David, in accordance with his Hebrew faith.  Beneath are engraved the words ‘Artist and Poet’.

In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell’s landmark study of the literature of the First World War, Fussell identifies Rosenberg’s Break of Day in the Trenches as ‘the greatest poem of the war’.  Jon Stallworthy regards it as  one of the great masterpieces of First World War poetry, harking back to the tradition of  pastoral poetry whilst also subverting it and communicating a strong flavour of the soldiers’ everyday life in the trenches. The ‘queer sardonic rat’ offers its own critique of heroic, muscular values prevalent when the war began. The poem was written in early 1916, shortly after Rosenberg had arrived in France with the King’s Own Lancaster Regiment. It was included in a letter to a friend in London, described as ‘a poem I wrote in the trenches, which is surely as simple as ordinary talk’:

The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

Another poem written in 1916, though the title refers to the first month of the war, was ‘August 1914′, written  while Rosenberg trained as a private soldier for the front line.  It offers a stark contrast to all those poems that welcomed the war, such as Rubert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’:

What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?

Three lives hath one life –
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone –
Left is the hard and cold.

Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.

‘In the Trenches’ was written in the autumn of 1916.  Rosenberg described it in a letter to a friend as ‘a bit commonplace’. Carol Rumens, writing in the Guardian, regards it as unfinished: ‘one of those poems a poet in a hurry considers finished, only later to discover, it was actually draft’:

I snatched two poppies
From the parapet’s ledge,
Two bright red poppies
That winked on the ledge.
Behind my ear
I stuck one through,
One blood red poppy
I gave to you.

The sandbags narrowed
And screwed out our jest,
And tore the poppy
You had on your breast …
Down – a shell – O! Christ,
I am choked … safe … dust blind, I
See trench floor poppies
Strewn. Smashed you lie.

However, there is unanimous agreement that ‘Dead Man’s Dump’ is Rosenberg’s masterpiece.  Its powerful, almost cinematic imagery invokes a soldier going ‘wiring’ – setting up entanglements of barbed wire in No-Man’s Land.  The wire is transported across the battlefield on a limber, or cart, pulled by a mule.  It passes dying men and runs over the bodies of the unburied dead. In a letter to a friend, Rosenberg described the genesis of the poem: ‘Ive written some lines suggested by going out wiring, or rather by carrying wire up the line on limbers and running over dead bodies lying about. I don’t think what I’ve written is very good but I think the substance is, and when I work on it I’ll make it fine.’  It remains one of the most detailed, explicit and brutal accounts of the horror of the First World War:

The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.

The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan,
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.

Earth has waited for them
All the time of their growth
Fretting for their decay:
Now she has them at last!
In the strength of their strength
Suspended–stopped and held.

What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit?
Earth! have they gone into you?
Somewhere they must have gone,
And flung on your hard back
Is their souls’ sack,
Emptied of God-ancestralled essences.
Who hurled them out? Who hurled?

None saw their spirits’ shadow shake the grass,
Or stood aside for the half-used life to pass
Out of those doomed nostrils and the doomed mouth,
When the swift iron burning bee
Drained the wild honey of their youth.

What of us, who flung on the shrieking pyre,
Walk, our usual thoughts untouched,
Our lucky limbs as on ichor fed,
Immortal seeming ever?
Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us,
A fear may choke in our veins
And the startled blood may stop.

The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
These dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called ‘an end!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.

A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.

They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.
Burnt black by strange decay,
Their sinister faces lie;
The lid over each eye,
The grass and coloured clay
More motion have than they,
Joined to the great sunk silences.

Here is one not long dead;
His dark hearing caught our far wheels,
And the choked soul stretched weak hands
To reach the living word the far wheels said,
The blood-dazed intelligence beating for light,
Crying through the suspense of the far torturing wheels
Swift for the end to break,
Or the wheels to break,
Cried as the tide of the world broke over his sight.

Will they come? Will they ever come?
Even as the mixed hoofs of the mules,
The quivering-bellied mules,
And the rushing wheels all mixed
With his tortured upturned sight,
So we crashed round the bend,
We heard his weak scream,
We heard his very last sound,
And our wheels grazed his dead face.

‘Returning, We Hear Larks’ is one of the last poems that Isaac Rosenberg wrote, scribbled on scraps of paper in circumstances hardly conducive to poetic creativity. Carol Rumens, writing in the Guardian, described the poem as:

Neither impressionistic sketch nor realist narrative, though drawing on both, partly rhymed and partly free, haunted by an antithesis of innocence and experience almost too painful to translate into language, the poem seems to look into the heart of Romantic epiphany and find an abyss. Less than a year later, on 1 April 1918, Private Rosenberg was killed at dawn after a night patrol.

Jon Stallworthy observes that the poem is Rosenberg’s ‘most complex version of pastoral’, obliquely evoking Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’, whose ‘unbodied joy ,,, showers a rain of melody’:

Sombre the night is.
And though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.

Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp –
On a little safe sleep.

But hark! joy – joy – strange joy.
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks.
Music showering our upturned list’ning faces.

Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song –
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man’s dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides,
Like a girl’s dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.

Edward Thomas

Thomas

“No one cares less than I,
Nobody knows but God,
Whether I am destined to lie
Under a foreign clod,”

It was only after driving round and round in circles that I found the place where Edward Thomas is buried. Agny military cemetery is situated in a busy suburb on the outskirts of Arras.  I had set the sat-nav on my mobile phone, but every time the voice asserted that ‘you have arrived at your destination’ I could see nothing.  On the third attempt, however, I noticed a small sign pointing down a cinder track that ran behind the gardens to the rear of some suburban houses.  I had been looking for a more typical and substantial roadside cemetery, but Agny military cemetery is of a type that I later encountered several times on my trip: small, tucked away behind houses or farms, the world of today encroaching tightly on all sides.

Agny military cemetery approach

The approach to Agny military cemetery

As I reached the trees at the end of the track that ran alongside back gardens where vegetables grew in profusion, the heavens opened and I took shelter, along with a group of French men who were mowing the grass around the graves.  As we waited for the rain to pass we fell into conversation, and I explained in halting French that I was looking for the grave of an English poet.  Without hesitation they directed me to the spot.

Agny military cemetery

Mowing the lawns in Agny military cemetery

The cemetery comprises six rows of the usual identical white headstones, and – as with all cemeteries managed by the Commonwealth War Graves commission – it was immaculately kept. Red roses bloomed between the well tended graves, and the cemetery probably felt smaller than it actually is, being surrounded on all sides by large trees. There are, in fact, 413 headstones here, though less than half have any name upon them, many simply engraved with the words; ‘A Soldier of the Great War’.

The grave of Edward Thomas names him as ‘Second Lieutenant PE Thomas’ and states the date of death, 9 April 1917. He was aged 39, much older than many of his fellow-soldiers. Right at the bottom of the headstone, partly obscured by rose leaves was the simple engraved inscription, ‘POET’. I stood and thought of the roads that had led him to this place:

Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living, but the dead
Returning lightly dance:

Whatever the road bring
To me or take from me,
They keep me company
With their pattering,

Crowding the solitude
Of the loops over the downs,
Hushing the roar of towns
And their brief multitude.

Edward Thomas grave

P.E. Thomas: ‘poet’

Edward Thomas enlisted as a private in the Artists’ Rifles in July 1915, after a period of much soul-searching.  He was sent to Hare Hall Camp at Romford in Essex, where he worked as a map-reading instructor and was promoted to lance-corporal, then full corporal. In November 1916, he volunteered for service overseas, and left England for France in January 1917. On 9 April he was killed by a shell blast in the first hour of the Battle of Arras, whilst directing fire from an observation post.

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.

– ‘In Memoriam’ (Easter 1915)’

Unlike Wilfred Owen, who trained alongside Thomas at Hare Hall Camp, Edward Thomas’s poetry was all written before he embarked for the Front in January 1917, though almost none of it was published until after his death. His poetry, when it deals with the war (which is rarely) is concerned with the impact of the war on his mind rather than being a response to the experiences of battle. The deeply melancholic ‘Rain’ was written on 7 January 1916 in Hut 51 at Hare Hall Camp:

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be for what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

A year earlier, in January 1915, he had written ‘A Private’, a memorial to those lost in the war in which he linked the familiar world of everyday rural life with the distant din of battle. It’s full of wry humour, portraying a drunken ploughman whose work rooted him to the soil of his village:

This ploughman dead in battle slept out of doors
Many a frozen night, and merrily
Answered staid drinkers, good bedmen, and all bores:
“At Mrs Greenland’s Hawthorn Bush,” said he,
“I slept.” None knew which bush. Above the town,
Beyond `The Drover’, a hundred spot the down
In Wiltshire. And where now at last he sleeps
More sound in France -that, too, he secret keeps.

For a year before he joined up, Thomas had been undecided about his role in the conflict.  He was uncomfortable with the jingoist exultation over the announcement of war. In December 1915 , in ‘‘This is no case of petty right or wrong’, he
asserted that he did not hate Germans, ‘nor grow hot/With love of Englishmen, to please
newspapers’.  In a letter to Robert Frost he wrote about his differences with his father:

People get fined occasionally for speaking well of the Germans at private parties—under the Defence of the Realm Act. I don’t wonder. My father is so rampant in his cheery patriotism that I become pro German every evening.

But indecisiveness and self-doubt were a recurring element in Thomas’s melancholia. One element of that self-doubt was his conviction that he was a coward, a feeling reinforced by an incident when he and Robert  Frost had encountered an aggressive gamekeeper. Thomas was convinced he had been a coward during the contretemps.

But he eventually made his decision, and – as Matthew Hollis recounts in Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas, in the spring of 1917, at an exposed crossroads on the outskirts of Arras known as the ‘Windy Corner’, Thomas surveyed his most dangerous observation so far:

There stood one of the few factory chimneys that had not been destroyed by shelling: two hundred feet high, it promised a key vantage point from which to observe the German lines; but it was horribly vulnerable and had been hit three times already by small fire, loosening parts of the brickwork.

From reconnaissance, Thomas knew that iron rings inside the chimney served as a ladder, and that one of the rings was loose, but he did not know which one. Worse still, the funnel tapered, so that in climbing the inside of the chimney he would hang further out over the ground below with each rung he ascended. He tested the first rings and began to climb. A shell exploded close  by and shook the chimney. Then another and another. Thomas’s nerve failed him. ‘It was impossible and I knew it,’ he explained  to Frost. ‘As a matter of fact I had no light and no information about the method of getting up so that all the screwing up I had given myself would in any case have been futile. It was just another experience like the gamekeeper.’

The incident with the keeper haunted him until the very end.

The following day was calm: the first thrush appeared, and from the orchard that was his billet Thomas watched a ploughman take his team of horses up and down the misty field; each time they climbed the ridge they came into view of German artillery, but not a shot was fired. The night brought heavy bombardment. Thomas had barely slept for the pounding; when he did, he dreamed almost for the first time since leaving England. In his dream he was at home again, but as he told Helen in a letter, ‘I was a sort of visitor and I could not stay to tea.’ It was a very feeble dream, he told her, but in his mind it clearly signified something more: ‘You must not convince yourself you are merely waiting, you know.’

The sight of the ploughman with his team of horses must surely have brought to Thomas’s mind the poem he had written at Hare Hall Camp two years earlier. ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ is perhaps the finest of his poems in which he reflects on the war:

As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.

The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. ‘When will they take it away? ‘
‘When the war’s over.’ So the talk began –
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
‘Have you been out? ‘ ‘No.’ ‘And don’t want to, perhaps? ‘
‘If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm, I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more…Have many gone
From here? ‘ ‘Yes.’ ‘Many lost? ‘ ‘Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.’
‘And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.’ ‘Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.’ Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

On Saturday April 7, Thomas wrote to Helen Thomas:

Dearest,

Here I am in my valise on the floor of my dugout writing before sleeping. The artillery is like a stormy tide breaking on the shores of the full moon that rides high and clear among white cirrus clouds  . . . Hardly anything came near the O.P. or even the village. I simply watched the shells changing the landscape. The pretty village among trees that I first saw two weeks ago is now just ruins among violated stark tree trunks.  But the sun shone and larks and partridge and magpies and hedge sparrows made love and the trench was being made passable for the wounded that will be harvested in a day or two. Either the Bosh is beaten or he is going to surprise us . . . One officer has to be at the O.P. every day and every other night. So it will be all work now till further notice – days of ten times the ordinary work too. So goodnight and I hope you sleep no worse than I do . . .

Sunday. I slept jolly well and now it is sunshine and wind and we are in for a long day and I must post this when I can.

All and always yours Edwy

Thomas spent the day before he died under particularly heavy bombardment.  Matthew Hollis describes his lucky escape that day, one that was not to be repeated on the next day:

The shell that fell two yards from where he stood should have killed him but instead it was a rare dud. Back at billet, the men teased him on his lucky escape; someone remarked that a fellow with Thomas’s luck should be safe wherever be went. The next morning was the first of the Arras offensive. Easter Monday dawned cold and wintry.  The infantry in the trenches fixed their bayonets and tightened their grip around their rifles; behind them, the artillery made their final preparations to the loading and the fusing of the shells. Thomas had started late to the Observation Post; he had not rung through his arrival when the bombardment began. The Allied assault was so immense that some Germans were captured half-dressed; others did not have time to put on their boots and fled barefoot through the mud and snow. British troops sang and danced in what only a few hours before bad been no-man’s-land. Edward Thomas left the dugout behind his post and leaned into the opening to take a moment to fill his pipe. A shell passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart. He fell without a mark on his body.

Thomas’s commanding officer wrote to Helen:

We buried him in a little military cemetery a few hundred yards from the battery, the exact spot will be notified to you by the parson. As we stood by his grave the sun came and the guns round seemed to stop firing for a short time.

On 25 May 1916, at Hare Hall Camp in Essex where members of the Artists’ Rifles undertook their training before heading off to fight in the trenches, Thomas wrote lines that were a conscious response to Brooke’s popular sonnet:

“No one cares less than I,
Nobody knows but God
Whether I am destined to lie
Under a foreign clod,”
Were the words I made to the bugle call in the morning.

But laughing, storming, scorning,
Only the bugles know
What the bugles say in the morning;
And they do not care when they blow
The call that I heard and made words to early this morning.

– ‘No One Cares Less Than I’, first published in the New Statesman, 1 June 1918

Wilfred Owen

Owen

Wilfred Owen was killed on 4 November 1918, on the Sambre Canal which passes through Ors, a village in a wooded valley some twenty miles to the east of Peronne and the Somme river.  Owen and his platoon had spent the previous night in the cellar of a Forester’s House in the wood outside Ors.  Owen is pretty much unknown in France, but I had read that the villagers, noticing that a great number of British visitors came looking for Owen’s grave and the exact spot where he had been killed, and asking to visit the cellar of the Forester’s house, had decided to turn the Forester’s House into a monument to the poet, commissioning the British artist Simon Patterson to turn the building into a place for reflection and meditation.

WIlfred Owen Forester's House original

La Maison Forestiere as it appeared before Simon Patterson’s intervention

The house, slate-roofed and of red brick with grey shutters, stands on a main road into the nearby town of Le Cateau-Camresis.  Patterson decided to preserve the exterior of the house, but to remove the roof and gut the interior.  The roof was replaced by a structure that appears normal when viewed from the road, but from other angles takes the form of an open book, with spine uppermost, the ‘pages’ constructed out of glass to admit maximum daylight into the interior.

Most dramatically, Patterson had the entire building rendered in brilliant white,  giving it the appearance of a solid sculptural object, and making  the house will stand out like ‘bleached bone’ (Patterson’s words) against the dark forest beyond.  You are reminded, too, of the rows of white gravestones in a British war cemetery.

The brick-lined cellar where Owen and his platoon spent their last night remains untouched, but the interior of the house has been gutted, leaving an open white space, lit from above, and the walls clad with translucent glass onto which are etched drafts of Owen’s poems.

Owen Foresters house Owen Foresters house 2

Simon Patterson’s newly-realised Forester’s House

Once I learned of this place I was keen to visit.  But I was disappointed to discover that on the day that I would be at Ors, the Forester’s House would be closed.  However, the tourist office website indicated that it was sometimes opened at other times for group visits.  I emailed to ask whether a group would be visiting on the afternoon I passed by, and whether I could tag along.  To my surprise, I received a reply offering to open the House just for me.

I arrived at the agreed time, and was met by a guide from the tourist office at Le Cateau-Cambresis who first of all took me down the steps into the cellar, which remains untouched and is accessed by a curved ramp, alongside which runs the text of Owen’s last letter home to his mother.

Wilfred Owen letter Maison Forestiere

Owen’s last letter inscribed on the ramp to the cellar of La Maison Forestiere (photo: magicspello.wordpress.com)

Entering the cellar, you are struck by how crowded it must have been that night when 29 soldiers were holed up here, smoking like chimneys.  As you begin to absorb the surrounding a recording begins of Kenneth Branagh reading Owen’s last letter to his mother.  It is observant, amusing – and deeply moving.

Owen Foresters house basement

Owen’s letter was designed to reassure his mother, saying nothing about the impending attack, but instead poking fun at his comrades (‘So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 ins. away, and so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges & jolts’) and offering witty pen-portraits of the men (‘a band of friends’) crammed into the small space around him:

To Susan Owen
Thurs. 31 October [1918] 6:15 p.m.

[2nd Manchester Regt.]

Dearest Mother,

I will call the place from which I’m now writing ‘The Smoky Cellar of the Forester’s House’. I write on the first sheet of the writing pad which came in the parcel yesterday. Luckily the parcel was small, as it reached me just before we moved off to the line. Thus only the paraffin was unwelcome in my pack.  My servant & I ate the chocolate in the cold middle of last night, crouched under a draughty Tamboo, roofed with planks. I husband the Malted Milk for tonight,  & tomorrow night. The handkerchief & socks are most opportune, as the ground is marshy, & I have a slight cold!

So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 ins. away, and so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges & jolts. On my left the Company Commander snores on a bench: other officers repose on wire beds behind me.  At my right hand, Kellett, a delightful servant of A Company in The Old Days radiates joy & contentment from pink cheeks and baby eyes. He laughs with a signaller, to whose left ear is glued the Receiver; but whose eyes rolling with gaiety show that he is listening with his right ear to a merry corporal, who appears at this distance away (some three feet) nothing [but] a gleam of white teeth & a wheeze of jokes.

Splashing my hand, an old soldier with a walrus moustache peels & drops potatoes into the pot. By him, Keyes, my cook, chops wood; another feeds the smoke with the damp wood.

It is a great life. I am more oblivious than alas! yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, & the hollow crashing of the shells.

There is no danger down here, or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.

I hope you are as warm as I am; as serene in your room as I am here; and that you think of me never in bed as resignedly as I think of you always in bed. Of this I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.

Ever Wilfred x

Owen last letter

Owen’s last letter

From the cellar, my guide led me into the main house where you enter a large, empty space with no photographs or war memorabilia – just Owen’s handwritten draft of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ reproduced along the walls.  The lighting is dimmed and the words of Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ in the poet’s own handwriting is projected onto the facing wall as Kenneth Branagh reads the poem.

Dulce et Decorum

The interior of the Forester’s House (photo: Zoe Dawes, www.thequirkytraveller.com)

As a teenager, knocked out by the power of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, I would never have imagined that one day I would be here, in the place where Owen spent his last hours.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Ors canal

The Sambre-Oise canal where Owen and his companions died

Shaking hands with my helpful guide, I left for the place where Owen and his companions met their fate, on the banks of the Sambre-Oise canal just outside the village of Ors.  The operation planned for 4 November 1918 seems almost suicidal. In order to cross the canal, the British soldiers had to install a floating bridge under fire from the German machine-guns positioned on the opposite bank.

At 05:45 on 4 November, Owen’s battalion went into action. Accompanying them were men of the Royal Engineers whose task was to assemble, on the canal bank, the sections of the prefabricated floating bridge. The operation had barely started before it was over. A few men managed to cross the canal, but the bridge was destroyed. Hopelessly exposed, a great number of the British soldiers fell under German  machine-gun fire. Among them was Wilfred Owen. Futility?

He was twenty-five years old, had published four poems and had written a hundred other unpublished texts half of which had been produced between 1916 and 1918. Two days later, on 8 November, Owen was awarded the Military Cross for his exemplary conduct in an earlier action. On the same day, he was buried in the small square reserved for British military graves in Ors village cemetery. The war ended three days later, and in Shrewsbury, on 11 November, as the bells rang to celebrate the Armistice, Owens’ parents were handed the telegram that all parents feared receiving.

Ors communal cemetery Owen grave

Wilfred Owen’s grave in Ors Communal Cemetery

From the canal, I went to the communal cemetery in the village of Ors, where Owen is buried, along with his companions who also died in the doomed action on the canal. While I stood there, the last line of another of Owen’s great poems came to mind: ‘Let us sleep now …’. ‘Strange Meeting’ was written in the spring or early summer of 1918. Siegfried Sassoon thought it Owen’s passport to immortality:

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand pains that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For of my glee might many men have laughed
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we have spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with the swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now . . . .”

In his lifetime Owen published only four poems. It was after the war, championed by the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden, that Owen  would finally gain the recognition he deserved.

Ors communal cemetery 2

Ors Communal Cemetery

In The Ghost Road, Pat Barker’s novel which featured historical figures such as Owen and Siegrfried Sassoon, alongside fictional characters like Billy Prior, she vividly imagines the disaster at the canal bank:

Bridges laid down, quickly, efficiently, no bunching   at   the   crossings,   just   the   clump   of  boots on wood, and then they   emerged from beneath the shelter of the trees and out into the terrifying openness of the bank. As bare as an eyeball, no cover anywhere, and the machine-gunners on the other side were alive and well. They dropped down, firing to cover the sappers as they struggled to assemble the bridge, but nothing covered them. Bullets fell like rain, puckering the surface of the canal, and the men started to fall. Prior saw the man next to him, a  silent, surprised face, no sound, as he twirled and fell,  a slash of scarlet like a huge flower bursting open on his chest.  Crawling  forward, he fired at the bank opposite though he could hardly see it for the clouds of smoke that drifted across. The sappers were still struggling with the bridge, binding pontoon sections together with wire that sparked in their hands as bullets struck it. And still the terrible rain fell. Only two sappers left, and then the Manchesters took over the building of the bridge. Kirk paddled out in a crate to give covering   fire, was hit, hit again, this time in the face, went on firing directly at the machine-gunners who crouched in their defended  holes only a few yards away. Prior was about to start across the water with ammunition when he was himself hit, though it didn’t feel like a bullet, more like a blow from something big and hard, a truncheon or a cricket bat, only it knocked him off his feet and he fell, one arm trailing over the edge of the canal.

He tried to turn to crawl back beyond the drainage ditches, knowing it was only a matter of time before he was hit again, but the gas was thick here and he couldn’t reach his mask.  Banal, simple, repetitive thoughts ran round and round his mind. Balls up. Bloody mad. Oh Christ. There was no pain, more a spreading numbness that left his brain clear. He saw Kirk die. He saw Owen die, his body lifted off the ground by bullets, describing a slow arc in the air as it fell. It seemed to take for ever to fall, and Prior’s consciousness fluttered down with it. He gazed at his reflection in the water, which broke and reformed and broke again as bullets hit the surface and then, gradually, as the numbness spread, he ceased to see it.

[…]

On the edge of the canal the Manchesters lie, eyes still open, limbs not yet decently arranged, for the stretcher-bearers have departed with the last of the wounded, and the dead are left alone. The battle has withdrawn from them; the bridge they succeeded in building   was   destroyed by a single shell.  Further down the canal another and more successful crossing is being attempted, but the cries and shouts come faintly here.

The sun has risen. The first shaft strikes the water and creeps towards them along the bank, discovering here the back of a hand, there the side of a neck, lending a rosy glow to skin from which the blood has fled, and then, finding nothing here that can respond to it, the shaft of light passes over them and begins to probe the distant fields.

Wilfred Owen's regiment

Doomed youth: Wilfred Owen’s regiment

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

In his new biography of Owen, published this year, Guy Cuthbertson offers this assessment of the poet:

Wilfred Owen remains contradictory: not quite a pacifist, he even  hated ‘washy pacifists’; he wrote ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ but he also wanted chivalry; he was the eternal boy who was a grown-up voice in an infantile war; he loved home but was eager to escape it; he was a  Christian of a kind, who disliked the Church; conservative and radical, normal and abnormal; the snobbish supporter of the downtrodden; the poet of modernity who was in love with the past; the realist and romantic; he was an innovative and traditional writer who was devoted to poetry and wrote, in the preface to his poems, ‘Above all I am not concerned with Poetry’; he longed for friendship and solitude; he fought gallantly, and urged his men to fight bravely, in a war he had been reluctant to join and then came to oppose bitterly. This is another part of why the man and his poems are so popular – he can appeal to everyone, and remains intriguing.

Related

Ivor Gurney: The Poet Who Loved the War

Ivor Gurney: The Poet Who Loved the War

Ivor Gurney

Ivor Gurney

Ivor Gurney was the least-known to me of the War Poets – at least until this week’s excellent BBC 4 documentary, The Poet Who Loved the War, presented by University of Exeter Professor Tim Kendall who argued for a major re-evaluation of the Gloucestershire poet’s work. Unusually, Gurney wasn’t an officer like most of the rest of the famous war poets (with the exception of Isaac Rosenberg), but a private who bizarrely joined up in the hope that the discipline and routines of army life would help ease a mental health condition. Initially this shock therapy worked but, invalided home after being shot and gassed, he spent the last 15 years of his life in a mental asylum.

The documentary was done well, with sensitive readings from Gurney’s poems and Gurney’s music  on the soundtrack (he was a highly successful composer, and is best known for this aspect of his work). The use of nostalgic and romantic dramatic reconstruction in which the poet was seen skipping along Gloucestershire lanes was thankfully limited.  With the help of knowledgeable expert witnesses, Kendall presented a serious account of Gurney’s deeply sad life.  Above it all it was the poetry that gripped your attention – poetry that powerfully captured the experience of the ordinary soldier and which, Kendall argued,  is the equal of the work of any of the more well-known soldier-poets of World War One.

Gurney was one of four children from a poor Gloucestershire family, a musically gifted boy who first gained a chorister scholarship to the King’s School Gloucester, and then to the Royal College of Music.  By 1912, Gurney was recognised as a composer of great promise, who had begun setting poems to music.  At about that time he began to write poetry himself.

At the same time, Gurney was already experiencing mental health issues, eventually leading to a breakdown. In 1914 he was keen to enlist, but was rejected by the army on grounds of defective eyesight, but a year later he was accepted and, in May 1916, crossed to France with the 2nd/5th Gloucesters. In the film, Professor Kendall argued that Gurney’s sole motivation for enlisting was his belief that the discipline of army life would help him overcome his mental instability.

The letters, poetry and the music that Gurney wrote while serving on the Somme suggest, argued Kendall, that his time at the front was, in fact, the happiest of his life:

The war years were pretty much the most stable of Gurney’s adult life, and it was after the war that he broke down completely. He associated war with all the horror and brutality, but also with the comradeship, that sense of belonging, that sense of place.  That’s why Gurney thought, when war broke out, ‘This is going to help me, the whole discipline of army life.’ Army life gave him that sense of regimentation and discipline that otherwise he wouldn’t have.

By 1917, Gurney had enough poems for a first book, called Severn and Somme.  Kendall discussed how in these poems, deeply sensitive to the landscape and natural world around him, Gurney reveals ‘an intense attention to place’. He sees the meandering river Severn of his Gloucestershire childhood mirrored in the the one that had given its name to the battle in which he had been fighting.  One from that first collection, read during the programme, was ‘Trees’ which name-checks Cooper’s Hill, near Cranham in Gloucestershire.  It brought to mind the haunting war paintings of ‘torn trees’ by Paul Nash, who also expressed his rage at the waste of life in images of the violation of nature:

(“You cannot think how ghastly these battle-fields look under a grey sky. Torn trees are the most terrible things I have ever seen. Absolute blight and curse is on the face of everything.”)

The dead land oppressed me;
I turned my thoughts away,
And went where hill and meadow
Are shadowless and gay.

Where Coopers stands by Cranham,
Where the hill-gashes white
Show golden in the sunshine,
Our sunshine — God’s delight.

Beauty my feet stayed at last
Where green was most cool,
Trees worthy of all worship
I worshipped then, O fool,

Let my thoughts slide unwitting
To other, dreadful trees,
And found me standing, staring
Sick of heart — at these!

Paul Nash, Inverness Copse, 1919

Paul Nash, Inverness Copse, watercolour, 1919

On Good Friday, 1917, at Passchendaele, Gurney was first wounded (though not seriously), then gassed.  He was sent home.  Two years later he produced his second collection, War’s Embers, that contained the poem ‘To His Love’ that is considered his masterpiece, the song-like elegy composed for his friend from childhood, Will Harvey, who Gurney believed to be dead (in fact Harvey had been captured by the Germans and was a prisoner of war):

He’s gone, and all our plans
Are useless indeed.
We’ll walk no more on Cotswolds
Where the sheep feed
Quietly and take no heed.

His body that was so quick
Is not as you
Knew it, on Severn River
Under the blue
Driving our small boat through.

You would not know him now…
But still he died
Nobly, so cover him over
With violets of pride
Purple from Severn side.

Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick-set
Masses of memoried flowers-
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.

That raw, colloquial ‘red wet / Thing’ of the final stanza has as much shattering force as anything in the body of First World War poetry.

Despite the pain and horror of war, Gurney had relished the camaraderie of the war.  In his poems he captures the voices of the soldiers, whether from Gloucestershire – or the men of Wales, ‘Hiding in sandbag ditches,whispering consolatory / Soft foreign things’ in ‘First Time In:

After the dread tales and red yams of the Line
Anything might have come to us; but the divine
Afterglow brought us up to a Welsh colony
Hiding in sandbag ditches, whispering consolatory
Soft foreign things. Then we were taken in
To low huts candle-lit shaded close by slitten
Oilsheets, and there but boys gave us kind welcome;
So that we looked out as from the edge of home.
Sang us Welsh things, and changed all former notions
To human hopeful things. And the next days’ guns
Nor any line-pangs ever quite could blot out
That strangely beautiful entry to War’s rout,
Candles they gave us precious and shared over-rations —
Ulysses found little more in his wanderings without doubt.
‘David of the white rock’, the’ Slumber Song’ so soft, and that
Beautiful tune to which roguish words by Welsh pit boys
Are sung — but never more beautiful than here under the guns’ noise.

Another example of his delight in the varieties of human voice – listening with a musician’s ear, perhaps – comes in ‘The Silent One’, with its ‘lovely chatter of Bucks accent’ and the ‘finicking accent’ of the officer. The poem emerged from an incident experienced by Gurney during an advance on German lines:

Who died on the wires, and hung there, one of two –
Who for his hours of life had chattered through
Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent:
Yet faced unbroken wires; stepped over, and went
A noble fool, faithful to his stripes – and ended.
But I weak, hungry, and willing only for the chance
Of line- to fight in the line, lay down under unbroken
Wires, and saw the flashes and kept unshaken,
Till the politest voice – a finicking accent, said:
‘Do you think you might crawl through there: there’s a hole.’
Darkness shot at: I smiled, as politely replied –
‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’ There was no hole, no way to be seen
Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes.
Kept flat, and watched the darkness, hearing bullets whizzing –
And thought of music – and swore deep heart’s oaths
(Polite to God) and retreated and came on again,
Again retreated a second time, faced the screen.

One aspect of Gurney’s poetry that distinguishes him from other war poets, Professor Kendall observed, is his naming of people and places, and his itemising of the small, ordinary things of the soldiers’ days.  ‘Laventie’ (named for a small town on the front line near Lille) illustrates this:

One would remember still
Meadows and low hill
Laventie was, as to the line and elm row
Growing through green strength wounded, as home elms grow.
Shimmer of summer there and blue autumn mists
Seen from trench-ditch winding in mazy twists.
The Australian gunners in close flowery hiding
Cunning found out at last, and smashed in the unspeakable lists.
And the guns in the smashed wood thumping and grinding.

The letters written there, and received there,
Books, cakes, cigarettes in a parish of famine,
And leaks in rainy times with general all-damning.
The crater, and carrying of gas cylinders on two sticks
(Pain past comparison and far past right agony gone,)
Strained hopelessly of heart and frame at first fix.

Cafe au lait in dugouts on Tommies cookers,
Cursed minnie werfs, thirst in 18 hour summer.
The Australian miners clayed, and the being afraid
Before strafes, sultry August dusk time than Death dumber —
And the cooler hush after the strafe, and the long night wait —
The relief of first dawn, the crawling out to look at it,
Wonder divine of Dawn, man hesitating before Heaven’s gate.
(Though not on Coopers where music fire took at it,
Though not as at Framilode beauty where body did shake at it)
Yet the dawn with aeroplanes crawling high at Heaven’s gate
Lovely aerial beetles of wonderful scintillate
Strangest interest, and puffs of soft purest white —
Soaking light, dispersing colouring for fancy’s delight.

Of Maconachie, Paxton, Tickler, and Gloucester’s Stephens;
Fray Bentos, Spiller and Baker, Odds and evens
Of trench food, but the everlasting clean craving
For bread, the pure thing, blessed beyond saving.
Canteen disappointments, and the keen boy braving
Bullets or such for grouse roused surprisingly through (Halfway) Stand-to.
And the shell nearly blunted my razor at shaving;
Tilleloy, Pauquissart, Neuve Chapelle, and mud like glue.

But Laventie, most of all, I think is to soldiers
The Town itself with plane trees, and small-spa air;
And vin, rouge-blanc, chocolats, citron, grenadine:
One might buy in small delectable cafes there.
The broken church, and vegetable fields bare;
Neat French market town look so clean,
And the clarity, amiability of North French air.
Like water flowing beneath the dark plough and high Heaven,
Music’s delight to please the poet pack-marching there.

Or the memory of marching, in October 1916, ‘Towards Lillers’, just a few miles along from Laventie, dreaming of ‘a quench for thirsty frames’, estaminets and ‘longed for cool wine or cold beer’, but remembering ‘two ditches of heart-sick men’, barb-wire to the front, and ‘the times scientific, as evil as ever again’:

 In October marching, taking the sweet air.
Packs riding lightly, and homethoughts soft coming,
‘This is right marching, we are even glad to be here,
Or very glad?’ But looking upward to dark smoke foaming,
Chimneys on the clear crest, no more shades for roaming,
Smoke covering sooty what man’s heart holds dear,
Lillers we approached, a quench for thirsty frames,
And looked once more between houses and at queer names
Of estaminets, longed for cool wine or cold beer.
This was war; we understood; moving and shifting about;
To stand or be withstood in the mixed rout
Of fight to come after this. But that was a good dream
Of justice or strength-test with steel tool a gleam
Made to the hand. But barb-wire lay to the front,
Tiny aeroplanes circled as ever their wont
High over the two ditches of heart-sick men:
The times scientific, as evil as ever again.
October lovely bathing with sweet air the plain

Back in Gloucester after the war, Gurney faced a seemingly hopeless future: instability and depression had descended into a profound mental collapse. From 1919 to 1922 Gurney drove himself hard, physically as well as creatively, taking jobs where his labours included digging, delving and felling trees, believing that physical exertion was essential to settle his nerves and to still the imagined voices and radio waves with which he now felt himself to be bombarded.

He alarmed his family with his terrified conviction that the police were torturing him, bombarding him with radio waves. Medical help was sought, and in September 1922 Gurney was certified insane and admitted to Barnwood House mental hospital in Gloucester.  Gurney made a desperate night-time escape from Barnwood, running off in his pyjamas (this made me think of John Clare). He was recaptured by the police, and transferred to the City of London Mental Hospital at Dartford, where he wrote and composed with feverish intensity, at one point producing a poem a day for a year.

Incarcerated for the last 15 years of his life, Gurney was all but forgotten, though he received visits from friends.  There was Marion Scott (the writer and musicologist who had met Gurney at the Royal College of Music; they had formed an enduring friendship recounted in the documentary, with Scott championing both his music and his poetry.  His old friend Will Harvey visited  – and Helen Thomas, the widow of Edward Thomas. She discovered that Gurney refused to go into the asylum’s grounds because ‘it was not his idea of the country at all – the fields, woods, water-meadows and footpaths he loved so well, and he would have nothing to do with that travesty of something sacred to him’. In the BBC 4 film, Kendall read this moving extract from her diary, describing one of her visits:

We arrived at the asylum which looked like – as indeed it was – a prison. [… ]We were walking along a bare corridor when we were met by a tall gaunt dishevelled man clad in pyjamas and dressing gown, to whom Miss Scott introduced me. He
gazed with an intense stare into my face and took me silently by the hand. Then I gave him the flowers which he took with the same deeply moving intensity and silence. He then said: ‘You are Helen, Edward’s widow and Edward is dead.’ I said, ‘Yes, let us talk of him’ [. . .]

We spoke of country that he knew and which Edward knew too and he evidently identified Edward with the English countryside, especially that of Gloucestershire. […] The next time I went I took with me one of Edward’s own well-used Ordnance maps of Gloucester where he had often walked. This proved to have been a sort of inspiration, for Ivor at once spread it out on his bed and he and I spent the whole time I was there tracing with our fingers the lanes and byeways and villages of which he knew every step and over which Edward had walked. He spent that hour in re-visiting his beloved home, in spotting a village or a track, a hill or a wood and seeing it all in his mind’s eye, a mental vision sharper and more actual for his heightened intensity. He trod, in a way we who were sane could not emulate, the lanes and fields he knew and loved so well, his guide being his finger tracing the way on the map. It was most deeply moving, and I knew that I had hit on an idea that gave him more pleasure than anything else I could have thought of.

During those last fifteen years in the asylum, Gurney constantly wished for death; as Professor Kendall explained, he felt forgotten, betrayed, exiled from his native Gloucestershire and condemned to a lingering torture. He died of tuberculosis on Boxing Day, 1937, aged 47. Only then did he return to his beloved Gloucestershire to be buried near Twigworth.

Ivor Gurney gravestone

The songs I had are withered
Or vanished clean,
Yet there are bright tracks
Where I have been,

And there grow flowers
For other’s delight.
Think well, O singer,
Soon comes night.

Paul Nash and World War One: ‘I am no longer an artist, I am a messenger to those who want the war to go on for ever… and may it burn their lousy souls’

Paul Nash and World War One: ‘I am no longer an artist,  I am a messenger to those who want the war to go on for ever… and may it burn their lousy souls’

Paul Nash was 25 at the outbreak of the First World War. He would come to see himself as a messenger to those who wanted the war to go on for ever, creating some of the most devastating landscapes of war ever painted, his outrage at the waste of life expressed through his depiction of the violation of nature in landscapes that were both visionary and terrifyingly realistic.

He had been a member of that remarkable pre-war cohort at the Slade School of Art that included Christopher Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, William Roberts, Ben Nicholson and Edward Wadsworth.  Nash had already gained a reputation as a painter of nocturnes and visionary landscapes when he reluctantly volunteered in September 1914, first joining the London Regiment (Artists’ Rifles) for home service only.  But in February 1917, having completed officer training, he embarked for France, arriving in the Ypres Sector soon after.

Along with Nevinson and Spencer, Paul Nash is the First World War artist whom I most admire, so I was interested in Paul Gough’s account of his war years in A Terrible Beauty: British Artists in the First World War which I finished reading recently.

Paul Nash, We Are Making a New World, 1918

Paul Nash, ‘We Are Making a New World’, 1918

Nash arrived at the Ypres Salient at an unusually quiet time (though nowhere in the trenches could be considered safe or particularly quiet). At twilight, as he patrolled the trenches, Nash had time to absorb the strange beauty of the battlefront landscape.  He was impressed by the powerful continuity of nature in the midst of the bombed and battered countryside.In a letter home he wrote:

Twilight quivers above, shrinking into night, and a perfect crescent moon sits uncannily below pale stars.  As the dark gathers, the horizon brightens and again vanishes as the Very lights rise and fall, shedding their weird greenish glare over the land. … At intervals we send up Very lights, and the ghastly face of No Man’s Land leaps up in the garish light , then, as the rocket falls, the great shadows flow back, shutting it into darkness again.  … Maybe you can feel something of the weird beauty from this little letter.

Paul Nash, Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood, 1917

Paul Nash, ‘Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood’, 1917

Nash, like many other artists, writers and poets on the Western Front found himself, as Gough observes, ‘wrestling with the cruel irony that the destruction and depravity all around him was actually feeding his imagination. His early drawings from this period use a bright, even colourful, palette, depicting natural scenes which appeared undisturbed by war.  In a letter home he wrote:

Everywhere are old farms, rambling and untidy, some of course ruined and deserted, all have red or yellow or green roofs and on a sunny day they look fine. The willows are orange, the poplars carmine with buds, the streams gleam brightest blue and flights of pigeons go wheeling about the field. Mixed up with all this normal beauty of nature you see the strange beauty of war. Trudging along the road you become gradually aware of a humming in the air, a sound rising and falling in the wind. You look up and after a second’s search you can see a gleaming shaft in the blue like a burnished silver dart, another and then another…

Paul Nash, Existence, 1917

Paul Nash, ‘Existence’, 1917

Nash’s sensitivity to the incongruity of spring unfolding amid the destruction is very similar to words that the poet Edward Thomas put down in his diary that same spring while stationed not far away, outside Arras:

Linnets and chaffinches sing in waste trenched ground with trees and water tanks between us and Arras. Magpies over No Man’s Land in pairs.

On another day Thomas records watching a French farmer ploughing a field just behind the lines, driving his team right up to a crest that was in full view of the German gunners at Beaurains, before turning slowly around. It’s impossible not to be reminded of the exquisite poem Thomas had written just before leaving for the front, ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’:

As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.
The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. ‘When will they take it away? ‘
‘When the war’s over.’ So the talk began –
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
‘Have you been out? ‘ ‘No.’ ‘And don’t want to, perhaps? ‘
‘If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm, I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more…Have many gone
From here? ‘ ‘Yes.’ ‘Many lost? ‘ ‘Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.’
‘And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.’ ‘Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.’ Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

Paul Nash, Ruined Country, 1917

Paul Nash, ‘Ruined Country’, 1917

Imagine a wide landscape flat and scantily wooded and what trees remain blasted and torn, naked and scarred and riddled. The ground for miles around furrowed into trenches, pitted with yawning holes in which the water lies still and cold or heaped with mounds of earth, tangles of rusty wire, tin plates, stakes, sandbags and all the refuse of war… In the midst of this strange country… men are living in their narrow ditches.

Nash wrote those words on Good Friday, 6 April 1917. Fifty miles to the south, Edward Thomas noted ‘infantry with yellow patches behind marching soaked up to line’. The Battle of Arras was about to begin, and on Easter Monday, as the British infantry attack began, Thomas was knocked down by the blast from an enemy shell, and killed instantly. ‘Thomas is dead…’ Nash wrote some time later after hearing the news. ‘I brood on it dully.’

Paul Nash, Indians in Belgium, 1917

Paul Nash, ‘Indians in Belgium’, 1917

After only three months at the front Nash was injured after falling into a trench and invalided back to England. Convalescing at home a week later, Nash learned that his division had been virtually annihilated – with most of his fellow-officers killed – in an attack on the infamous Hill 60 that presaged the Messines Ridge offensive.

While on leave, Nash exhibited some war drawings in London. The work was noticed by the War Artists Advisory Committee and so, when he returned to France later that year, it was as an official war artist. He arrived in the aftermath of the Battle of Passchendaele, ‘the blindest slaughter of a blind war’ in the words of AJP Taylor, and now his eyes were truly opened to the horrors of war. In his notes he wrote:

I realise no one in England knows what the scene of the war is like.  They cannot imagine the daily and nightly background of the fighter.  If I can, I will show them….

Paul Gough’s account draws heavily upon Nash’s writing, revealing it to be amongst the most vivid to come out of the war. In late 1917, for instance, he wrote to his wife:

I have just returned, last night, from a visit to Brigade Headquarters up the line and I shall not forget it as long as I live. I have seen the most frightful nightmare of a country more conceived by Dante or Poe than by nature, unspeakable, utterly indescribable. In the fifteen drawings I have made I may give you some idea of its horror, but only being in it and of it can ever make you sensible of its dreadful nature and of what our men in France have to face. We all have a vague notion of the terrors of a battle, and can conjure up with the aid of some of the more inspired war correspondents and the pictures in the Daily Mirror some vision of battlefield; but no pen or drawing can convey this country – the normal setting of the battles taking place, day and night, month after month. Evil and the incarnate fiend alone can be master of this war, no glimmer of God’s hand is seen anywhere. Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man, only the black rain out of the bruised and swollen clouds all through the bitter black of night is fit atmosphere in such a land. The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease. They alone plunge overhead, tearing away the rotting tree stumps, breaking the plank roads, striking down horses and mules, annihilating, maiming, maddening, they plunge into the grave that is this land; one huge grave, and cast up on it the poor dead. It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.

As the messenger, Paul Nash created some of the most devastating landscapes of war ever painted, his outrage at the waste of life was expressed through his depiction of the violation of nature in landscapes that were both visionary and terrifyingly realistic.  In a perceptive opening to his chapter on Nash, Paul Gough observes that ‘of all British artists of the last century, Paul Nash is perhaps the one most readily associated with the sanctity and loveliness of trees’. As a visionary painter, Nash sensed the metaphysical power of trees – how they ‘linked the underworld, the earth’s surface and the skies’.  Nash was sensitive, not only to the human carnage he witnessed, but also to the devastation of the verdant plains of Flanders, Artois and Picardy, where trees had offered ‘vantage and protection, raw materials and nourishment’, in thick forests and neat copses.

Once cherished as a place of refuge and shade, copses or small woods now became death traps, infamous killing grounds.  Trees were cleared for safety by artillery shelling or felled for military use.  Nash saw all this, writes Gough:

He was aghast at the sight of splintered copses and dismembered trees, seeing in their shattered limbs an equivalent for the human carnage that lay all around or even hung in shreds from the eviscerated treetops.  In so many of his war pictures, the trees remain inert and gaunt, failing to respond to the shafts of sunlight; their branches dangle lifelessly ‘like melancholy tresses of hair’, mourning the death of the world and its values that Nash held so dear’.

Myfanwy Piper later observed that:

The drawings he made then, of shorn trees in ruined and flooded landscapes, were the works that made Nash’s reputation. They were shown at the Leicester Galleries in 1918 together with his first efforts at oil painting, in which he was self-taught and quickly successful, though his drawings made in the field had more immediate public impact. His poetic imagination, instead of being crushed by the terrible circumstances of war, had expanded to produce terrible images – terrible because of their combination of detached, almost abstract, appreciation and their truth to appearance.

Paul Nash, After the Battle, 1918

Paul Nash, ‘After the Battle’, 1918

Paul Nash, Rain: Lake Zillebeke, 1917

Paul Nash, ‘Rain: Lake Zillebeke’, 1917

Nash’s anger, writes Gough, was converted into a suite of taut drawings, ‘each one scooped out of the muddy places, barren ridge lines, and filthy puddles of the Salient’.  In works such as Rain: Lake Zillebeke or After the Battle, Nash ‘created a new calligraphy of war’:

His drawings are scored and scratched with uncompromising diagonals, the incessant rain is engraved in stabbing lines across the surface, the ashen wastes of the battlefield are dense with impenetrable strokes of his pen. […] Nash had created a distinctive vision of war, one that brought new insights into the way that artists could depict the absences, the emptiness, the abraded surfaces, and the defiled hollows that were the essence of the Western Front.

Paul Nash, Poster for Void of War Exhibition, May 1918

Paul Nash, Poster for The Void of War exhibition, May 1918

In May 1918 The Void of War, an exhibition of pictures by Paul Nash, opened in London.  The most acclaimed work in the exhibition was the heavily ironic We Are Making a New World (above), ‘a brazenly symbolic canvas developed from a drawing of a sunrise at Inverness Copse, a derelict woodland deep in the Ypres Salient’.  The painting has become one of the most memorable images of the First World War, the title mocking the ambitions of the war, as the sun rises on a scene of the total desolation.

Paul Nash, Sunrise Inverness Copse, 1918

Paul Nash, ‘Sunrise Inverness Copse’, 1918

5.1.5

Paul Nash, ‘Void’, 1918

In these key drawings and paintings, Nash was beginning to work out a means of portraying the battlefield in concrete terms.  His use of colour had become more ambitious, and in Void, one of the most powerful paintings exhibited in London, acidic colours depict the total devastation of war in a shocking, hellish scene that, far from commemorating valour, rather reveals the desolation, destruction, and terror of war.

Paul Nash, The Ypres Salient at Night, 1918

Paul Nash, ‘The Ypres Salient at Night’, 1918

The Ypres Salient at Night shows three soldiers on the fire step of a trench surprised by a brilliant star shell lighting up the view over the battlefield. The painting shows us a fragmented world of chaos, where the demarcation of day and night, order and disorder, no longer exists as bombing continues throughout the night.

Paul Nash, The Mule Track, 1918

Paul Nash, ‘The Mule Track’, 1918

In The Mule Track, Nash presents the viewer with another terrifying scene. Amidst the chaos of a heavy bombardment the small figures of a mule train are trying to cross the battlefield. They are reduced to defenceless puppets at the mercy of terrible forces. The animals rear and panic at nearby explosions, as the water in the flooded trenches wells up like geysers and rubble is thrown high into a sky obscured by large clouds of yellow and grey smoke.

Paul Nash, Men Marching at Night, 1918
Paul Nash, ‘Men Marching at Night’, 1918

In a very fine drawing from this period, Nash shows a view along a straight road lined with tall trees that loom over a column of British soldiers marching down the road. The rain drives across the composition from the left, and the soldiers huddle beneath cloaks whilst marching. There are echoes in this work of CRW Nevinson’s handling of a similar subject matter in his war work, Column on the March from 1914 (see my earlier post). Nash certainly admired Nevinson, and recorded in a letter in July 1917 that they had just met.

Paul Nash, Wire, 1918

Paul Nash, ‘Wire’, 1918

Wire is a poignant watercolour of a desolate landscape, described by the artist and writer Deanna Petherbridge in these terms:

Great bomb craters filled with sullen waters, possibly concealing rotten corpses; the pitiful paths up and down dunes that speak of some hidden human presence; the pall of smoke partly filling the sky; the imagined stench. We assume that it is winter from the degraded palette, but it could just be the winter of the soul – war allows no other season than that of desolation. What makes this painful watercolour so memorable is the blasted tree, a great ripped phallic symbol enmeshed with barbed wire. There is a long tradition in Western landscape art of decaying tree stumps as symbols of destroyed civilisations. In sixteenth and seventeenth-century landscapes such signs of decay signify renewal, but in this modern work about the horrors of war, rebirth has been suspended.

Paul Nash, The Menin Road, 1919

Paul Nash, ‘The Menin Road’, 1919

A month before the London exhibition opened, Nash had been commissioned by the Ministry of Information to make a large oil painting – originally to have been called A Flanders Battlefield – that was to feature in the planned Hall of Remembrance, alongside paintings by William Orpen and John Singer Sargent. The intention was that both the art and the setting would celebrate national ideals of heroism and sacrifice. However, the Hall of Remembrance was never built and the artists’ work ended up with the Imperial War Museum.

Nash worked on the painting from June 1918 to February 1919, choosing as his subject the main road between Ypres and Menin.  He would remember it as a road in name only, torn up by shellfire and deserted in daylight. It was one of the most dangerous parts of the Western Front with notorious sites of battle – Sanctuary Wood, Hooge Crater, Inverness Copse and Hellfire Corner – strung out along the road. (As an inscription for the painting, Nash suggested: ‘The picture shows a tract of country near Gheluvelt village in the sinister district of ‘Tower Hamlets’, perhaps the most dreaded and disastrous locality of any area in any of the theatres of War.’)

Gough discusses the ‘highly sophisticated image’ that resulted from months of work in a temporary studio at Chalfont St Giles shared with his brother in these terms:

By subtly dividing the canvas into three broad bands – a deep foreground of water-filled craters, the lateral axis of the road in the middle band, and the shattered landscape in the distance – [Nash] drew out the different directional properties in each of the three zones without losing either the phantasmagoric properties of the emptied landscape, nor the nullity of a place that had been relentlessly stripped of its former identity.

As so often in Nash’s war work, the foreground is crammed with insurmountable obstacles – pools of water that cannot easily be crossed, pyramidal blocks that bar the way into the interior space of the painting, piles of debris that clutter the ground plane.

The viewer, writes Gough, seeks a way through the obstructions ‘into the distance where the ‘Promised Land’ of the horizon is unreachable, locked in some unimaginable future’.

Nash considered The Menin Road to be the best thing he had ever done. ‘He was right’, argues Gough, concluding that Nash had emerged from the war as by far the most important and original young artist in Britain (he was just 28 at the war’s end).  Ahead, wrote Nash in 1919, lay the ‘struggles of a war artist without a war’.  He could not have known then that in another 20 years he would, once again, be appointed an official war artist.

Edward Thomas: Now All Roads Lead to France

Edward Thomas: Now All Roads Lead to France
Edward Thomas at Steep 1914
Edward Thomas at Steep in 1914

I’m sitting in bright sunshine on a rooftop balcony in Naples – Vesuvius looms in the distance – my injured right foot propped up a cushion (I’ve broken my ankle I later discover).  I’m reading Matthew Hollis’s account of the last years of Edward Thomas, Now All Roads Lead to France, when I encounter the passage in which Hollis tells of Thomas being laid up, immobile, for a month or more at the beginning of 1915 after spraining his ankle coming down the Shoulder of Mutton, the hillside above his home at Yew Tree Cottage in Steep, Hampshire. Thomas had been anxiously debating whether to enlist for the war for weeks, but the sprain would kick any thought of enlistment into touch for the time being.  Instead, writes Hollis, ‘for his poetry it would be a tremendous blessing’.

This is the crucial point in Edward Thomas’s shift from prose to poetry – the central theme of Matthew Hollis’s book.  Nine months before the accident, in the spring of 1914, Thomas had met Robert Frost met in the Gloucestershire village of Little Iddens – a meeting of poetic sensibilities that was to have an incalculable effect on Thomas.  They saw eye to eye on matters of poetry, and Frost, observing the poetry in Thomas’s prose, encouraged him to consider writing poetry.  Now, confined to a deckchair in the bedroom at Yew Tree Cottage, Thomas had the opportunity to to take ‘an uninterrupted run’ at his poems.  The result, Hollis writes, was ‘a literary dam burst’.

Prompted by Frost, Thomas had taken to reading back through his notebooks for inspiration.  On 8 January 1915, he came across this entry made on the journey from London and through Gloucestershire by train in midsummer heat on 24 June 1914.  At 11:44 the train drew up at Oxford; haymakers toiled beneath the hot sun; it was eighty degrees in the shade:

Then we stopped at Adlestrop, thro the willows cd be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12:45 & one thrush & no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam. Stopping outside Campden by banks of long grass willow herb & meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between the two periods of travel – looking out on grey dry stones between metals the shiny metals & over it all the elms willows & long grass – one man clears his throat – and a greater rustic silence. No house in view. Stop only for a minute till signal is up.

‘Then we stopped at Adelstrop’: what follows in Hollis’s account is a revealing description of how Thomas struggled to achieve the ‘easy, wistful tone’ of the opening of ‘his best loved and best remembered poem’.  The poem is reproduced in full in the book; as I read the last lines on that Naples balcony, a blackbird flew to a TV aerial on a nearby rooftop and began to sing.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

‘Adelstrop’ was published in the New Statesman (currently celebrating its centenary) three weeks after Thomas’s death.

The beauty of Now All Roads Lead to France is that, written by a poet, it places the process of creating verse central to its biographical narrative. Matthew Hollis examines how Thomas’s poems entered the world, sometimes through detailed reference to the ideas jotted down in his notebook, revealing how false starts, disjointed lines and crossings-out eventually began to assume the form a finished verse. Hollis also offers a fascinating account of the literary climate in which the Thomas worked before the First World War. (I have another book by Matthew Hollis: an excellent 2003 anthology 101 Poems Against War which gathered poems written against war from Ancient Greece to the present day Gulf. All royalties from the sales go to the Mines Advisory Group.)

Hollis begins his narrative in the winter of 1913 when Edward Thomas had reached something of a personal and artistic crisis in his life. He was 34 years old, a father of three, who felt trapped in his marriage to a woman whom he often treated badly, but who loved him deeply. He had produced 20 books of biography and criticism, and more than 1,500 book reviews, mostly at high speed and under intense pressure, ‘plagued with work, burning my candle at 3 ends’, as Thomas put it. Hollis writes that Thomas suffered bouts of deep depression that resulted in thoughts of suicide and harsh verbal attacks on his wife Helen.

The relentless, ungratifying work left him exhausted and bitter, while the din of family life served only to worsen his mood. In poor spirits he treated his family cruelly, scolding the children and reprimanding his wife, and the more he did so, the worse his spirits became.

His discontent and frequent self-loathing made him sour, self-pitying and cruel to his wife: ‘Your sympathy and your love are both hateful to me. Hate me, but for God’s sake don’t stand there, pale and suffering’.

‘What I really ought to do is live alone,’ he told Jesse Berridge. ‘But I can’t find the courage to do the many things necessary for taking that step. It is really the kind Helen and the children who make life almost impossible.’

Yet Thomas was well-regarded and loved by those close to him (though not, it appears, his father). Hollis paints a picture of a man who, when fully in command of himself, could be gentle and sweet-hearted. Helen continued to love him and believe in him:

The absences were crippling to Helen. She was warm and impulsive, a product of her father’s free‑thinking influence, but her untidy spontaneity made her a hopeless housekeeper and a poor cook to Edward’s irritation. . . . . It was her bohemianism that allowed her to ‘manage’ his disappearances emotionally but it was these same unconventional attitudes that left her isolated and wounded when he left.

Helen Thomas

Matthew Hollis’s superb biography (which won the 2011 Costa Book Award for ‘Best Biography’) makes its central focus the transformation of a talented author and literary critic into one of the most highly regarded poets of the 20th century. In part, it’s a study of new directions taken in poetry in the years before the First World War. Hollis begins his book with a culturally-significant event which took place in January 1913, as recorded by Edward Thomas in an article in the Daily Chronicle:

There has been opened at 35, Devonshire-street, Theobalds-road, a ‘Poetry Bookshop’, where you can see any and every volume of modern poetry. It will be an impressive and, perhaps, an instructive sight.

The bookshop, five minutes walk from the British Museum, had been launched by Harold Monro who was to publish several volumes by ‘The Georgians’, poets who, in Hollis’s words:

Looked to the local, the commonplace and the day-to-day, mistrusting grandiosity, philosophical enquiry or spiritual cant. Many held an attachment to the traditions of English Romantic verse; they looked to Wordsworth in their connection to the land rather than to John Donne and the Metaphysical pursuit of the soul.

Critical regard for their poetic style did not last long: the grim realities of the trenches and the modernism of Pound and Eliot would see to that. But Hollis provides an engaging account of a literary firmament illuminated by stars whose light has since faded: Wilfred Gibson, Lascelles Abercrombie, Gordon Bottomley, and John Drinkwater. Thomas knew them, reviewed their work, and was – for a time at least – impressed by them. But that was before he met Robert Frost.

All Roads cover

The relationship between the two writers forms the central thread in Hollis’s narrative. Robert Frost arrived in England in 1912, and Thomas’s first encounter with the American poet a year later would be of supreme importance for Thomas. The pair soon formed a firm friendship, founded on shared ideas about poetry. The two poets would spend hours engaged in what Frost called ‘talks-walking’, rambling along paths and through fields, sometimes for 25 miles:

They would spend days together in this way: walking and talking, about verse, about their home life or their peers, stopping now and again to examine the flora in the hedgerow, or to lean on a stile or gate. Frost delighted in his friend’s knowledge of wild flowers and bird calls, while Thomas could listen all day to his companion speak about verse; and they found a meeting of minds on their ideas about poetry: on speech rhythms and sound-sense, on uncluttered diction, on cadence and the ear. To Frost, the thoroughness and insight of Thomas’s knowledge was second to none; to Thomas, Frost’s instincts were sharper and truer than any he had met. Writer to reader, poet to critic … but Frost had already seen a poet in Thomas and would set about convincing his friend that they were talking writer to writer.

That verse could be natural speech would become central to the beliefs and friendship that bound the two men together.  Frost had formulated the idea of ‘the sound of sense’:

It is possible to have sense without the sound of sense (as in much prose that is supposed to pass muster but makes very dull reading) and the sound of sense without sense (as in Alice in Wonderland which makes anything but dull reading).  The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words.

Hollis elaborates and explains – more clearly than anything I have read about poetry – what this implies:

Frost’s belief was this: cadence is a natural part of human speech – it gives the speaking voice its intonation, its modulation and its rhythm.  We use cadence to indicate and understand meaning in a way that goes deeper than the content of individual words into the arena of moods and atmospheres.  So when, in Frost’s favourite example, we hear voices behind a closed door we can broadly make out sense even if the words themselves are not clear.  We can detect anger, affection, happiness and so forth because the cadence gives us a kind of sonic blueprint for the meaning and carries a communicative charge all of its own, This is the basis of ‘the sound of sense’ and its importance to poetry lies in the understanding that a line of verse can communicate tonally as well as through the literal definition of words. Patterns of sound and rhythm establish a tone or mood that the poem must work towards – or against – but to which it must never be indifferent.

Once the poet has grasped the sound of sense, Frost believed, the next task was to stretch the irregular rhythms of speech across the regulated rhythms of poetry:

Frost … believed that it was the rhythms of speech – as opposed to music or traditional metre – that should guide our ear when employing the sound of sense. It was a view  entirely counter to the times in England – counter to the ornate Victorians and the minimalist Imagists, counter also to the musical Georgians – and was born out of a trenchant belief that ‘words exist in the mouth, not in books’.

Edward Thomas had been groping towards similar conclusions for himself, but it took Frost’s shove and encouragement to persuade Thomas to organise some of his prose writing into verse, for Frost was sure that poetry of the kind they both sought was already there.

On 2 November 1914, Thomas called at the White Horse Inn near Steep, a regular haunt, and there he scribbled notes that eventually were hammered into the shape of his first poem, ‘Up in the Wind’, with its arresting opening line, ‘I could wring the old thing’s neck that put it here!’  In a tremendous passage (see extract here), Hollis describes how Thomas inched forward, sometimes backtracking, as he shaped phrases in his notebook: ‘I could wring the old girl’s neck/That put it here/A public house’. That didn’t sound quite right, though, and over the next days he recast the lines and added more before completing the 115-line poem.  Hollis, a poet himself, knows how verse is composed; but he also knows how to communicate the process to the general reader.

This first effort was, like many later ones, composed from jottings in one of his notebooks. He was, Hollis states, ‘a perennial note taker; he depended on his notebooks to refresh the details that would vitalise his prose’. Now he began to quarry from them phrases and images from which he could shape poetry. He wrote ten poems in the following fortnight.  He was 34 years old, and in the three years remaining to him Thomas found himself as a poet, writing 144 poems of which at least a dozen are considered classics, a brief but remarkable flowering of genius cut short by death in war.

There’s another aspect of the friendship between Frost and Thomas that Matthew Hollis places centre-stage: the matter of Thomas’s indecisiveness and self-doubt. One element of that self-doubt was Thomas’s conviction that he was a coward, a feeling reinforced by an incident when Frost and Thomas had encountered an aggressive gamekeeper. Thomas was convinced he had been a coward:

For Edward Thomas, the encounter would leave him haunted. He would relive the moment again and again. In his verse and in his letters to Frost ‑ in the week when he left for France, even in the week of his death ‑ Thomas felt hunted by the fear and cowardice he had experienced in that stand‑off with the gamekeeper. He felt mocked by events and probably by the most important friend of his life, and he vowed that he would never again let himself be faced down. When the call came again he would hold his nerve and face the gunmen.

‘That’s why he went to war,’ said Frost.

Thomas prevaricated over whether to enlist or follow Frost to his farm in New Hampshire.  Frost was amused at Thomas’s inability to make up his mind, and teased him: ‘No matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh, and wish you’d taken another.’ Frost wrote what would become his most famous poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’, in response to Thomas’s dilemma.

But to Thomas, it was not the least bit funny. It pricked at his confidence, at his sense of fraudulence, reminding him he was neither a true writer nor a true naturalist, cowardly in his lack of direction. And now the one man who understood his indecisiveness most astutely was mocking him for it. Thomas took the ‘tease’ badly. He felt the poem to be a rebuke for his own inability to choose between the pursuit of poetry and a career in prose – worse, at his indecisive attitude toward the war, so often expressed to Frost.

Hollis spends some time discussing the poem, often read as a parable about the traveller taking responsibility for their own destiny. But, as Hollis notes, it’s not that simple: Frost said, ‘It’s a tricky poem – very tricky’. Hollis observes that both paths in the poem are ‘worn about the same’ and ‘equally’ covered in fresh, untrodden leaves. In actual fact, there is no discernible difference between the two paths.  The real message, wise and ironic, is that choices we make in in life, however much we might hesitate or debate, are often just acts of impulse.  Take the other road, Frost implies, and that might be just as significant. Either way, it’s not worth sighing over.

Few poems, Hollis suggests, have been so misinterpreted. But crucially, Edward Thomas, the man for whom it was written, failed to understand it:

It seems curious that Edward Thomas, the man who had understood Frost’s writing better than anyone, could not see the poem for what it was. . . . . . He determinedly assured Frost that he had ‘got the idea’, when plainly he had not.

Thomas took the poem very seriously, reading it as exasperated counsel from his friend. It forced his hand, Hollis argues, compelling Thomas to sign up, with fateful consequences.

It also provoked Edward Thomas’s ‘Roads’:

I love roads:
The goddesses that dwell
Far along invisible
Are my favourite gods.

Roads go on
While we forget, and are
Forgotten like a star
That shoots and is gone. […]

Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance:

Whatever the road bring
To me or take from me,
They keep me company
With their pattering,

Crowding the solitude
Of the loops over the downs,
Hushing the roar of towns
And their brief multitude.

On Easter Monday 1917, Thomas was killed by a shell in Arras. He had left his dugout for a moment to fill his pipe; a shell passed so close that the blast of air stopped his heart and he fell to the ground, not a mark on his body. In October his Poems was published. The book was dedicated to Robert Frost.

Two paths had diverged, and Thomas had made his choice. A major poet, who crammed his entire output of more than 140 poems into the last two-and-a-half years of his life, was lost.  Edward Thomas’s poetry has grown in stature with each succeeding generation. ‘His poetry is so very brave – so unconsciously brave’, said Frost. ‘He didn’t think of it for a moment as war poetry, though that is what it is. It ought to be called Roads to France.’

Edward Thomas memorial stone, Shoulder of Mutton Hill, Hampshire

 See also

Now I know that Spring will come again. Perhaps to-morrow?

Now I know that Spring will come again. Perhaps to-morrow?

Spring snow 1

Yesterday the first day of spring, today blizzards in a north-east wind.  Winter hasn’t let go this year: we’ve been stuck with anticyclonic conditions for three weeks, and this has sucked in cold air from Scandinavia.  For a while the weather was crisp, then it turned cold, damp and murky.  Today, an Atlantic weather front pushing in has met that cold air from the north-east and, here on Merseyside, we’ve had heavy, wet snow swept along in blizzard conditions. Not what you expect in late March, least of all in Liverpool.

Yesterday the Guardian, in an article on the unseasonal weather, noted that

One hundred years ago, on the official first day of spring, the Anglo-Welsh poet and naturalist Edward Thomas set off from Clapham Common in London to cycle and walk to the Quantock Hills in Somerset. The record of his journey, called In Pursuit of Spring, became a nature-writing classic, telling of exuberant chiffchaffs and house martins, daffodils and cowslips in full flower and ‘honeysuckle in such profusion as I had never before seen’.  Had Thomas taken the same route today, he might not have seen very much wildlife – and could well have frozen. Mist and fog, rain, a bitter north wind, and temperatures just above freezing are forecast for , the first “official” day of spring.

Certainly not much sign of honeysuckle around these parts, and the daffodils and crocus are only just starting to show.  This time last year it was very different: a heatwave and barbecues in the park. But, as Edward Thomas was well aware, it’s not unusual for winter to hold on through March; he wrote a poem about it:

Now I know that Spring will come again,
Perhaps to-morrow: however late I’ve patience
After this night following on such a day.

While still my temples ached from the cold burning
Of hail and wind, and still the primroses
Torn by the hail were covered up in it,
The sun filled earth and heaven with a great light
And a tenderness, almost warmth, where the hail dripped,
As if the mighty sun wept tears of joy.
But ’twas too late for warmth. The sunset piled
Mountains on mountains of snow and ice in the west:
Somewhere among their folds the wind was lost,
And yet ’twas cold, and though I knew that Spring
Would come again, I knew it had not come,
That it was lost too in those mountains chill.

What did the thrushes know? Rain, snow, sleet, hail,
Had kept them quiet as the primroses.
They had but an hour to sing. On boughs they sang,
On gates, on ground; they sang while they changed perches
And while they fought, if they remembered to fight:
So earnest were they to pack into that hour
Their unwilling hoard of song before the moon
Grew brighter than the clouds. Then ’twas no time
For singing merely. So they could keep off silence
And night, they cared not what they sang or screamed;
Whether ’twas hoarse or sweet or fierce or soft;
And to me all was sweet: they could do no wrong.
Something they knew–I also, while they sang
And after. Not till night had half its stars
And never a cloud, was I aware of silence
Stained with all that hour’s songs, a silence
Saying that Spring returns, perhaps to-morrow.

I’ve remarked here before that I revere the Country Diary written by Paul Evans in the Guardian. Go here for the full text, but this is part of the entry he wrote yesterday:

Today is the vernal equinox: equal day, equal night, a moment of balance poised between the cold grey of winter and the green fire of spring.

Watching the budget on the news, I wait for George Osborne’s primavera moment, when zephyrs blow flowers through the halls of Westminster and birdsong drowns out the hectoring. Hope over experience, eh? He’s only going to frack it up so I switch off and walk outside where spring should be champing at the bit.

This time last year was sunny and warm, I saw butterflies and bees and at dusk bats flying under a strangely fat moon. What have they done with the spring? We had a day of it a fortnight ago and since then it’s been snow, hail, rain, fog. The ground is unyielding, greasy, sullen. Wallflowers and polyanthus are stunned by frost. A few sulky daffodils peer earthwards. Snowdrops are hanging on like a pillow burst of feathers from a peregrine kill, beautiful and pointless. […]

I stand under a dishwater sky, bone cold, cold as charity. Geese honk, hens cluck, small birds whistle without passion. The buds hold, tight-fisted, their little hopes. Between yesterday’s hail and tomorrow’s rain, the gutters run. I rummage through rattley hedges for that still point, the moment of balance where light and dark are equal, life and death cancel each other out. It’s a new beginning of sorts. Even though spring still feels as though it’s stuck up to its axles in mud, there is an urgency in the voices of birds. We agree.

It’s the birds I notice too on my morning dog walks through the park.  The other day I was astonished when a pair of scuffling male blackbirds flew out of a shrubbery and continued their mid-air wing-flapping sorting out of the pecking order at shoulder height just an arm’s length in front of me; they only gave up and flew off after I had reached out an arm. There’s a song thrush that always singing loud and sweet in the same tree by the Palm House every morning, and a heron that stands, shoulders hunched like an old judge, staring at the stream. The nuthatch whose song I was pleased to identify last year is back in the same tree, making the same electronic, staccato call.

After this morning’s walk in the park with the dog, at breakfast we watched for some time as a fox poked around the back garden, sniffing at the fat balls hanging for the birds, and scrounging some fallen bird seed.  The cold making for hunger, I expect.  Yesterday there was a different fox on the back wall; that one had a tail like a broom: smooth for most of its length, but ending with a furry flourish.