Some soldier poets
T. STURGE MOORE
HARCOURT, BRACE AND HOWE1920
|A HALF PLEIADE||27|
|R. E. VERNÈDE||45|
|F. W. HARVEY||87|
|THE BEST POETRY||119|
Grateful acknowledgment is due to the courtesy with which authors or their representatives and their publishers have most generously permitted me to quote—Lord Desborough from Julian Grenfell's poem; Mr Edward Marsh and Messrs Sidgwick & Jackson from Rupert Brooke's poems; Captains Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, Lieutenants Robert Nichols and Richard Aldington and Mr Laurence Binyon from their own poems; Bishop Frodsham from those of Lieutenant Harvey, then a prisoner; Professor W. R. Sorley from Captain Sorley's, Mrs Edward Thomas and Mrs R. E. Vernède from their husbands' poems, Lord Dunsany and Mr Herbert Jenkins from those of Francis Ledwidge, and Mr Charles Louis Seeger and Messrs Constable from Alan Seeger's poems.
These essays are occasional. They are incomplete and tentative, as must be every reply to a fortuitous demand. I have not chosen my themes by any deep affinity or because I had a native bent for studying them, but because they were thrust before me and some of my thoughts flocked out to meet each.
I sketched characters based on analysis of work, not on information about authors, yet have since learned that some of these literary portraits seemed good likenesses to the friends of the man portrayed, and the friends of other poets have desired to see their literary characters sketched by me.
Young poets are old-fashioned, like Nature herself; they have usually not yet acquired the professional desire to be in advance of the public. Nothing seems hackneyed to genius, and youth is perhaps half genius.
What a work is not is always more obvious than what it is, as critics are never weary of proving. I have tried to build with positive qualities, and to obtain relief by laying on shadows lightly, as the best topographical draughtsmen did their pearly washes of diluted Indian ink.
What is poetry? Why are so many young people tempted to try their hands at it? Wrong answers to these questions are naturally more numerous and fashionable than right answers. But we can never see poetry in relation to national life until we get hold of right answers. Poetry is a creation or discovery in the use of words that wakes or strengthens emotion in us, thus enlarging consciousness. The poet is not full of emotions and perceptions that need expressing, as a vat is full of grapes, though no doubt human nature—complete, ideal—is latent in him. He is, like all young creatures, playful. He plays with language, attracted by its beauties and possibilities, and in doing so he does for himself what afterwards his poems do for us—he awakens or creates emotions in his heart that it knew little or nothing of before, and as he continues he clarifies, strengthens and adds to them.
The Muse is light-footed, but does not, like Poe, consider a poem more essentially poetical for being short. No, as children continue their Indians and Pirates from day to day and from one holidays to another, she sustains the poet's interest in Aready or Babylon, in murderous king and incestuous queen, for years together, and renews it from age to age; yet she often welcomes novel themes. She loves to defeat the "proud limitary" theorist who is for a hole-in-the-corner business, with one properly labelled ware of a high quality. One generation having deified classical example, she prompts the next to scoff at "monstrous Milton"; yet will very likely lead the scoffer's son back to that blind man's feet. In fact, like children, she hates a declared purpose; for the game is best when the players forget themselves entirely in it, even though it be preaching, for then she loves a sermon. The poet is only a poet when he lays aside the interests of his life among his neighbours and shares her free absorption over anything or everything. To live poetry as Rupert Brooke dreamed of doing is impossible, for though Life may follow, she can never overtake those immaterial feet. The welfare of one man, of one neighbourhood, of one nation or period, is a pettifogging affair when past and future lie open. If the poet treats of his own love he must be careful not clearly to distinguish her from Helen of Troy, or should, at least, give us the illusion that they are equally real to him. That is why failure in love and war is so much more inspiring to the poet than success; when the real world has rejected a man he feels freer in the Muses' house; he no longer has any interests that conflict with theirs.
Poetry is more profound and significant than prose, wiser and weightier, at once more primitive and more refined; for the fashion of this world passes, but the moods of that remain. They build with durable, precious materials which, though invisible, are stronger and tougher than steel, and more difficult than radium to account for. The poet is not the odd sheepish person whom his friends know, but the worthy playmate of Polyhymnia. In fact the wider the difference the freer the poet is from personal taint. Some "nice man" was Shakespeare to his London, but our Shakespeare was and still is more imposing than Lord Verulam, yet never could be met in any street.
What is poetry? Why do youths love it? To read verse and watch young men answers both questions, but who shall sum those answers up in words? One at present fashionable answer may be worth combating so as to set off the largeness and vigour of that apparent truth which defeats the tongue. Why do young men write verse? They want to express themselves, their own sense of things. This answer only shows how deeply the fallacy of impressionism has sophisticated modern æsthetic thought. No one escapes. The impressionist looks upon his individual peculiarities as the source of value. He offers to exploit the Peru of his mind for the benefit of the world. He would work it with scientific nicety, or else record the whimseys of feeling, seeing and thinking to which he is subject when most alarmingly unlike other men, and thinks thus to add new facts to our knowledge, enlarge our experience. He does, but Apollo is not interested in his wonders as glimpsed from a garret. "Intolerably severe" he has frowned on these votaries who are content with what they see. He smiles on those who, forgetting themselves, follow his splendour into the open. Their worship can never enough divest itself, not only of walls and roof, but of coat and shirt, so as to feel his glory with every pore. Whereas those others try to frame their sense of him, which is small, those flatter him with a whole-hearted imitation, creating little gardens with stick and ink and paper as he creates the world for joy with light.
More minds are capable of an interest in persons than in beauty, as the appetite for gossip and scandal shows. The impressionist theory was bound to catch on; it panders to so common a weakness. "Know thyself!" "Be true to your own experience." Yes, but not because you are you, or it is yours, but because you are not adequate, it cannot suffice, and to realise these limits till they ache is to extend them, throw them off and enlarge your life. The difference of attitude is enormous, far more real than any that can be drawn between romantic and classical or realist and idealist. The artist never does express himself; but, in trying to create objects, a by-product of mannerisms and shortcomings piles up like a heap of shavings, and this distinguishes his work from that of other artists. The poet who is keen about a poem and the poet who is anxious about his reputation are two persons, though like light and darkness they may alternately occupy the same room; one casts the other out. The master draws importance from the masterpiece, not this from him: his glory is a reflex light from its worth.
But do I not in sketching these characters truckle with this vice? A character is formed by a transparent and elastic envelope of limitations like a soap-bubble; it is easy to attribute those iridescent hues to that tegument of defect, but they are due to the form which the energy within supports. This escapes; a slop of soapy water falls; so when life evades, the body caves in and moulders. The hope which is my excuse is that I have focused attention on no slimy limitations but on the shape bestowed by that expansive energy.
Life is impersonal except while prisoned in some alien material, to which it gives as perfectly as possible an immortal form. At least it is safest to think of it as impersonal until we can follow it out of one form into another: at present it disappears and reappears, like but not necessarily the same. I treat of poets, not of persons. Poetry is a form of vitality due to the fact that language can be filled with significance in such a way as to catch the light and appear transformed in texture and value. The poet's words are mere words, nevertheless; we all use and misuse them. His success is limited by their defects, just as it has always been seconded by the energy with which uncountable minds have charged them. So the poem has a distinct character, a distinct life, and a distinct fate, fuller than the poet's in some respects, narrower in others. It too is a bubble into which life passes through the artist as through a pipe often cracked, choked or faulty; besides the materials he works with, the soap is not all good, there may be too much or too little water, and at last when the perfect globe sails away nobody happens to be looking. The game is one of many hazards. Theorists insist that only those bubbles that sport a certain blue or green or purple are true art. But no dye, no pigment helps; and a more generously endowed faculty discovers that a change in the angle of regard can awaken any of the seven hues on all that float the air; for not subject and sentiment but form and texture import; emotions and themes are only tabooed by prejudice. The rainbow admiration even hovers over the bowl of suds, and any bubble round enough might be induced to travel alone if chivied about with a conviction equal to that of the moment's fashion. History is draughty, capriciously so, and tomorrow will not correct all the mistakes of to-day. Chance often defeats fine work while it treasures trash. These poets have been chosen at random out of the hundreds that are launched by the Press. I cannot pretend to any assurance that I have chosen the largest or the most prosperous voyagers. Twenty years ago the public gave comparatively little attention to youngsters and their poetry. Perhaps the public attitude has changed more than young men and their work. First the turn of the century made the future seem more interesting because it had got a new name; lately these boys became heroes, defenders, creditors, and people were anxious to pay them with sympathy and understanding. This more human attitude no doubt exhilarates the poets. Manly youth during these last four years, like a Niagara, has been thundering down into an abyss and the few bubbles whose beauty floats upward are pathetically disproportionate to its volume and sound. To realise the cost of the forms of social life yet experimented in by man is to turn in horror from the past towards the future. But only by gazing steadily back can we discern what life has produced and therefore may again shape to warrant this outlay. Art and poetry, to such a steady gaze, make up perhaps half of that acceptable excuse for man's existence. Nay, more than half; for heroism, personal charm, beauty, holiness, wisdom and even knowledge live again reflected and absorbed into works of art, and only so find adequate remembrance.
The war is over, and I add to these studies of Soldier Poets a lecture on The Best Poetry read before the Royal Society of Literature on 27th March 1912, in hopes of balancing and completing their significance. Young poets have frequently produced perfect things, but these have rarely been of any length. Much practice and familiarity with the possibilities of words and thoughts are required in complex creations. In discovering The Best Poetry the qualities of great works must be scanned in due relation to the excellences of lyrics, and thus, perhaps, this examination of work by necessity immature may be thrown into perspective and refresh without confusing.