Above the Battle/Introduction


"Over the carnage rose prophetic a voice,
Be not disheartened, affection shall solve the problem of freedom yet.
(Were you looking to be held together by lawyers?
Or by an agreement on a paper ? or by arms?
Nay, nor the world, nor any living thing, will so cohere.)"

These lines of Walt Whitman will be recalled by many who read the following pages: for not only does Rolland himself refer to Whitman in his brief Introduction, but, were it not for a certain bizarrerie apart from their context, the words "Over the Carnage" might perhaps have stood on the cover of this volume as a striking variant on Au-dessus de la Mêlée.

Yet though the voice comes to us over the carnage, its message is not marred by the passions of the moment. After eighteen months of war we are learning to look about us more calmly, and to distinguish amid the ruins those of Europe's intellectual leaders who have not been swept off their feet by the fury of the tempest. Almost alone Romain Rolland has stood the test. The two main characteristics which strike us in all that he writes are lucidity and commonsense—the qualities most needed by every one in thought upon the war. But there is another feature of Rolland's work which contributes to its universal appeal. He describes our feelings and sensations in the presence of a given situation, not what actually passes before our eyes: he describes the effects and causes of things, but not the things themselves. Through his work for the Agence internationale des prisonniers de guerre, to which one of the articles now collected is largely devoted, he is, moreover, in a position to observe every phase of the great battle between ideals and between nations which fills him with such anguish and indignation. And with his matchless insight and sympathy he gives permanent form to our vague feelings in these noble and inspiring essays.

It will not, however, surprise the vast public who have read Jean-Christophe to find that while so many have capitulated to the madness of the terrible year through which we have passed, Rolland has remained firm, and has surpassed himself. He was prepared. As the extract placed at the beginning of this volume shows, he was one of the few who realised only too well the horror he was powerless to prevent. Yet he made every effort to open the eyes of Europe and especially of the young, so many of whom had learned to look up to him as a leader. To these young men, one of the finest essays in the present collection is primarily addressed—O jeunesse héroique du monde

Eighteen months have passed and they still endure the terrible ordeal, the young men of Germany and France, whom he had striven so hard to bring together; on whose aspirations and failings Jean-Christophe is a critical commentary. The movements and tendencies of society were there given a dramatic embodiment, permeated for Rolland by the Life Force—that struggle between Good and Bad, Love and Hatred, which makes life worth living. All is set down with the clear analysis of feeling natural to a musical critic. But in spite of his burning words on the destruction of Rheims, Rolland, as is clear from his other critical and biographical writings, is more interested in men than in their achievements. And the men of to-day interest him most passionately. "Young men," he has said, "do not bother about the old people. Make a stepping-stone of our bodies and go forward."

And above all it is the permanent things in life with which he is concerned. As Mr. Lowes Dickinson puts it, "M. Rolland is one of the many who believe, though their voice for the moment may be silenced, that the spiritual forces that are important and ought to prevail are the international ones; that co-operation, not war, is the right destiny of nations; and that all that is valuable in each people may be maintained in and by friendly intercourse with the others. The war between these two ideals is the greater war that lies behind the present conflict. Hundreds and thousands of generous youths have gone to battle in the belief that they are going to a “war that will end war,” that they are fighting against militarism in the cause of peace. Whether, indeed, it is for that they will have risked or lost their lives, only the event can show."

The forces against such ideals are powerful, but Rolland is not dismayed. "Come, friends! let us make a stand! Can we not resist this contagion, whatever its nature and virulence be—whether moral epidemic or cosmic force." And he appeals not only in the name of humanity but in the name of that France which he loves so dearly—"la vraie France" of which Jaurès wrote (in the untranslatable words which Rolland has quoted), "qui n’est pas résumée dans une époque et dans un jour, ni dans le jour d’il y a des siècles, ni dans le jour d’hier, mais la France tout entière, dans la succession de ses jours, de ses nuits, de ses aurores, de ses crépuscules, de ses montées, de ses chutes, et qui, à travers toutes ces ombres mêlées, toutes ces lumières incomplètes et toutes ces vicissitudes, s’en va vers une pleine clarté qu'elle n'a pas encore atteinte, mais dont le pressentiment est dans sa pensée!"

But though his love of France inspires every word that Rolland has written, the significance of the present volume is not less apparent to English readers. Some of the articles and letters now collected have already appeared in English, for the most part in the pages of The Cambridge Magazine, from which they have been widely quoted in the press. For help in rendering the translations as adequate as possible I may also take this opportunity of acknowledging my special indebtedness to Mr. Roger Fry,[1] who has just issued through the Omega Workshops a striking translation of some of the most recent French poetry inspired by the war; to Mr. James Wood, who has himself done part of the translation, particularly "Pro Aris" ; and to Mr. E. K. Bennett, of Caius College, whose version of "Above the Battle" has already been quoted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and others. For the most part, the articles here collected have not appeared in English before; and they have been almost inaccessible even in French, as their author explains in his Preface.


Magdalene College, Cambridge,

January 1916.

  1. For translating "The Murder of the Élite."