Some soldier poets/A Half Pleiade

A HALF PLEIADE

Let St Beuve's avowal justify this title: "All these Academies, between you and me, are pieces of childishness, at any rate the French Academy is. Our least quarter of an hour of solitary reveries or of serious talk, yours and mine, in our youth, was better employed; but as one gets old one falls back into the power of these nothings; only it is well to know what nothings they are." So the significance of serious thought and discussion about art is apt to hold an inverse ratio to the number and age of those who think and discuss; for the future is always invisible. Robert Nichols, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, friends by their own avowal, have possibly had this importance in intimate conclave. Who can be sure that they have not deserved my title? They make no claim to be reformers or a movement, but such announcements are perhaps a fashionable foible, a trait which will disparage and date our period a hundred years hence. "The political virus even infected literature; writers and artists called themselves impressionists, symbolists, futurists, imagists and cubists; they published programmes and manifestoes, the charlatans!" as some unborn Taine may phrase it.

Rupert Brooke's verse had a conscious elegance that diverse judges attribute either to his treasuring a meagre vein or to a wary nature's perception that there had only yet been time to polish one of its many facets. In Robert Nichols' work variety and abundance are more evident than artistry and selectness. As if to make up for this he has prefaced his volume[1] with two quotations from An Introduction to the Scientific Study of English Poetry, by Mark Liddell. These passages, though neither new nor perfectly expressed, suggest that Nichols' attention has been absorbed by the rehearsal of passionate experience or its reverberation through imagined scenes, rather than by niceties of style or prosody. All that he means by "a rhythm of ideas" is that the sense of the words should inspire the cadences of their sound; for, of course, in its major structures as well as in line and stanza, rhythm is a sensuous character only applicable to ideas by a metaphor. Poetry is, he thinks, "a marvel of the brain" fundamentally the same in all men; the poet only excels by more perfect organs of perception and expression—a conception in generous contrast to that of the young man, who is so keen on distinguishing his work as to whittle his gift away in the effort to remove all trace of kinship with other minds. On the other hand, only time will show whether Nichols will say a great deal in a manner not sufficiently distinct to live, or will fulfil the promise everywhere apparent in this book.

"On either hand the slender trees
Bow to the caressing breeze,
And shake their shocks of silver light
Against skies marbled greenish-white,
Save where, within a rent of blue,
The tilted slip of moon glints through,
Glittering upon us as we dance
With a soft extravagance
Of limbs as blonde as Autumn boughs
And gold locks floating from moony brows.
While anguished Pan the pipes doth blow
Fond and tremulous and low...."

A good omen! We are reminded of the sweetest music of classical English. It is not easy to imitate; let those who think it is, echo so fine a strain so freshly. Nothing comes of nothing, but out of imitative admiration grow the grand wings of the Muses. However, this Faun's Holiday is a rambling, shapeless poem, though it constantly threatens to be better than it anywhere is. With the anxiety of one who expects to surpass himself Mr Nichols appends "Oxford, Early Spring, 1914," to the poem, which is preceded by a note telling us that one part is adapted from a version of 1912 and another only composed as late as July, 1914. To set so seriously about helping your biographer is charmingly youthful. Another pre-war poem called The Tower describes Judas leaving the Last Supper:

". . . one arose to depart
Having weakness and hate of weakness raging within his heart
And bowed to the robed assembly whose eyes gleamed wet in the light"—

and at the bottom of the tower found beside the door—

"Mary of Seven Evils, Mary Magdalen.
And he was frighted at her. She sighed: 'I dreamed him dead.
We sell the body for silver . . .'
Then Judas cried out and fled."

Though the texture of the poem has been accepted too easily, these are touches of imaginative power which may lead to greater things. Possibly his best poem is—


THE RECKONING

The whole world burns, and with it burns my flesh.
Arise, thou spirit spent by sterile tears;
Thine eyes were ardent once, thy looks were fresh,
Thy brow shone bright amid thy shining peers.
Fame calls thee not, thou who hast vainly strayed
So far from her; nor Passion, who in the past
Gave thee her ghost to wed and to be paid;
Nor love, whose anguish only learned to last.
Honour it is that calls; canst thou forget
Once thou wert strong? Listen, the solemn call
Sounds but this once again. Put by regret
For summons missed, or thou hast missed them all.
Body is ready. Fortune pleased; O let
Not the poor Past cost the proud Future's fall.

With that he turns to enlist. It is a little difficult to guess what "Fortune pleased" may refer to. Possibly that, in sounding him this new, terrible summons, Fortune shows herself pleased to give him a new chance of retrieving whatever in his life had gone awry. The rest is touching in its sincerity, all the more for its somewhat grandiloquent address.

Wistful, hesitant, eager, boyish, yet already regretful over things done ill—all the ingenuous flutter of an ambitious but not yet fully sinewed nature—with what image shall we associate the attitude of Robert Nichols in this book? Sculpture is too definite. But a fresco in the Prytaneum. Not a large panel nor in a central place. I see a boy battling in a strong wind with a shirt from which he cannot free his wrists. Splash! splash! his companions plunge into the sea, he totters with impatience, half laughs at his own misfortune, blushes at seeming to lag behind, yet thrills at the possibility of retrieving all and being first at the goal. But many of these poems are dreamy! and was not our lad in a muse when he forgot to unbutton those wrist-bands, before pulling his shirt over his head? Look, the sky is grey, the water rough, the wind deafening; only those who swim for honour will not defer the race.

With Siegfried Sassoon we have "glad confident morning"; he does easily and well what he desires to do. His rhythms never hark back to Milton's youth as Robert Nichols' did; they stop short at John Masefield and Thomas Hardy. The longest poem[2] is a monologue. The speaker, an old huntsman, has become inn-keeper, only to lose his savings instead of increasing them; he lazily maunders about life and religion, the point being the piquancy of vulgar notions of hell and heaven, when travestied in images drawn from his narrow round of experience with the pack and behind the bar. It might be claimed by those anxious to show that this young poet's roots strike deeper than I have suggested that this poem resembles Browning's Caliban on Setebos. The book at first seems merely smart, buoyed on good health and good fortune, "like little wanton boys who swim on bladders."


STAND TO: GOOD FRIDAY MORNING

I'd been on duty from two till four.
I went and stared at the dug-out door.
Down in the frowst I heard them snore.
"Stand to!" Somebody grunted and swore.
Dawn was misty; the skies were still;
Larks were singing, discordant and shrill;
They seemed happy; but I felt ill.
Deep in water I splashed my way
Up the trench to our bogged front line.
Rain had fallen the whole damned night,
O Jesus, send me a wound to-day,
And I'll believe in Your bread and wine,
And get my bloody old sins washed white.

Graves' tone is more felicitous in this vein, his cynicism is less consciously aggressive.


STRONG BEER

······

Tell us, now, how and when
We may find the bravest men? . . .
Oh, never choose as Gideon chose
By the cold well, but rather those
Who look on beer when it is brown,
Smack their lips and gulp it down.
Leave the lads who tamely drink
With Gideon by the water brink,
But search the benches of the Plough,
The Tun, The Sun, The Spotted Cow,
For jolly rascals, lads who pray,
Pewter in hand, at close of day,
"Teach me to live that I may fear
The grave as little as my beer."

Nichols is hardly ever so successful as these two pieces are, yet even his war poems (records of casual scenes and moods), which cannot be said to push beyond appearances, are warmer and not so arid as Sassoon's, not so trivial as Graves'.

"''Ello! wot's up?' 'Let's 'ave a look!'
'Come on, Ginger, drop that book!'
'Wot an 'ell of bloody noise!'
'It's the Yorks and Lanes, me boys!'


So we crowd: hear, watch them come. . .
One man drubbing on a drum,
A crazy, high mouth-organ blowing,
Tin cans rattling, cat-calls, crowing. . .


''Ip 'urrah!' 'Give Fritz the chuck.'
'Good ol' bloody Yorks!' 'Good luck!'
'Cheer!'
I cannot cheer or speak
Lest my voice, my heart must break."

His comrades' intentions are thinner than this, indeed so fully rewarded with a grin that the title "poet" appears misplaced. Slangy cynicism characterises many of Sassoon's poems, but reading on, something deeper is discovered.

"When I'm among a blaze of lights,
With tawdry music and cigars
And women dawdling through delights,
And officers at cocktail bars, . . .
Sometimes I think of garden nights
And elm trees nodding at the stars.


I dream of a small fire-lit room
With yellow candles burning straight,
And glowing pictures in the gloom,
And kindly books that hold me late.
Of things like these I love to think
When I can never be alone:
Then someone says: 'Another drink?'. . .
And turns my living heart to stone."

Nothing could be better than that "When I can never be alone." It is as apt as it is simple, worthy of any master.

So he yearns from the crowd, the mud, the din at the Front; and when he gets home on leave he walks up round the house where his friend used to live, and through the wood they often paced together, seeking for communion with him, though he is dead.

"Ah, but there was no need to call his name.
He was beside me now, as swift as light.
I knew him crushed to earth in scentless flowers,
And lifted in the rapture of dark pines.
'For now,' he said, 'my spirit has more eyes
Than heaven has stars; and they are lit by love.
My body is the magic of the world,
And dawn and sunset flame with my spilt blood.
My breath is the great wind and I am filled
With molten power and surge of the bright waves
That chant my doom along the ocean's edge. . . .'"

Thus sorrow opens the flood-gates of his eloquence. Yet though it less suggests abundance, Graves' simpler, briefer Not Dead is perhaps more effective.

"Walking through trees to cool my heat and pain
I know that David's with me here again.
All that is simple, happy, strong he is.
Caressingly I stroke
Rough bark of the friendly oak.
A brook goes babbling by: the voice is his.
Turf burns with pleasant smoke;
I laugh at chaffinch and at primroses;
All that is simple, happy, strong, he is.
Over the whole wood in a little while
Breaks his slow smile."

Here both young scoffers are in earnest. And though Graves succeeds best, one doubts whether he will task himself enough for greater things, whereas throughout Sassoon's book, with its glib impressionism playing with worn themes in order to make something out of the wrong side of them, there is a touch of strength, a gift for succeeding to-day which will help him when he turns his mind to its true work. But on this theme also Nichols, in spite of his less steady hand, can match them both, perhaps surpass either.


OUR DEAD

They have gone from us. O no! they are
The inmost essence of each thing that is
Perfect for us; they flame in every star;
The trees are emerald with their presences.
They are not gone from us; they do not roam
The flow and turmoil of the lower deep,
But have now made the whole wide world their home,
And in its loveliness themselves they steep.
They fail not ever; theirs is the diurn
Splendour of sunny hill and forest grave;
In every rainbow's glittering drop they burn;
They dazzle in the massed clouds' architrave;
They chant on every wind, and they return
In the long roll of any deep blue wave.

The grief is that a voice like our own, a mind which had communed with ours, has been replaced by a world-wide absence: travel where we will, the well-known hail can never surprise us again. An end has been reached. Rupert Brooke's sonnet gives splendid expression to the strange awe of this silent, empty prospect. Yet all three of these younger poets, in a strain of slightly affected pantheism, console themselves that what they have lost is added to what remains—invisibly present in it; and you are set pondering whether inspiration leavened the literary convention, derived from Shelley's Adonais, sufficiently to give their having done this, force as a hint of some deep human trait. What place do we really think "our dead" should take in our lives? The poet who would convince us of the truth would need to be not only daring and honest as these boys, but wise and profoundly gentle.

A shirt was clinging to Nichols' image, but Sassoon appears in full uniform, equal to every claim made by a day of action. Or is his smartness rather intellectual than practical? Derision hardly consists with might and main. Scorn abstracts itself and stands aside. The dapper mind is exasperated by fatigue and danger, and ever tries to reserve for self-realisation a few crumbs of time and energy. Shall we not picture this satirist better huddling under a greatcoat in some chilly dug-out? Refusing to drop asleep, he muses of his room in college, or holds a book he is too tired to read for a few seconds near his candle-end before putting it out. Preoccupied with to-day, he is of the best that it recognises in itself.

But no! How easy it is to be unjust! Another little book[3] arrives, clearer-voiced; in it the self-conscious grin opens to a bitter laugh, while on its later pages the soul rebels, repents and aspires, with grace and power.


BANISHMENT

I AM banished from the patient men who fight.
They smote my heart to pity, built my pride.
Shoulder to aching shoulder, side by side,
They trudged away from life's broad wealds of light.
Their wrongs were mine; and ever in my sight
They went arrayed in honour. But they died,—
Not one by one: and mutinous I cried
To those who sent them out into the night.


The darkness tells how vainly I have striven
To free them from the pit where they must dwell
In outcast gloom convulsed and jagged and riven
By grappling guns. Love drove me to rebel.
Love drives me back to grope with them through hell;
And in their tortured eyes I stand forgiven.

For a young officer to refuse to lead more men to death may give proof of truer courage than to continue to do it without conviction. Such insubordination is abundantly excused both by the facts that prompted it and by the action that retrieved it.

Were all men capable of such mutinies war would cease. War is forced on many whose souls rebel against it by many who seek profit in it, whether for themselves, their caste or their nation. But these were surely more numerous and more dominant among our enemies than on our side: yet even Prussians are men. How many of us repel the offer of an unfair advantage? how many pounce on it? This solidarity of the average man with them gives warlords their power, which must be broken symbolically in fact before the human spirit will discipline its appetite for exploiting weaker men. Grenfells are needed to subjugate this dragon; but they will recognise brother spirits among the conscientious objectors, who brave not only the enemy but the whole world. Just as Sassoon's scorn for many common attitudes towards the war is too intellectual to inspire his best poetry, so censors of all mankind discover a theoretical nudity. Our dependence on our neighbours, even when we are forced to despise their judgment, is more certain than our own wisdom can be. Peace with its commerce was blighted with a like shame, waste and ruthlessness, yet who dissociated himself thus completely from its prosperity? Then to refuse to soil the hands when millions must be stained will appear ungenerous, unless the danger run in keeping them so daintily clean exceed the common danger; and even then the grace of a divine humility may not be superfluous. History has proved, however, that the Prince of Peace necessarily appears hostile to the average man until he rises from death, no longer to reason about property and liberty in the world but to appeal for service and integrity in the heart.

Timon of Athens is frequently enacted in small on the nursery boards, often with a sixth act, an act as touching and more heroic than the prodigal son's last, when the scorned scorner returns to his world. In the splendour of early manhood such a repentant Timon is a rarer and grander figure—stooping his proud, honest head because though men are servile and treacherous, he who is neither is yet their brother in so many other ways that when Athens is besieged he claims to share their agony as a privilege. Such is the figure gazing on which my admiring eyes are misted, after reading this sonnet Banishment.

Less passion, and an easier commerce with actuality would seem to characterise the poetry of Captain Robert Graves. His is a taking smile.

"The child alone a poet is:
Spring and Fairyland are his.
Truth and Reason show but dim,
And all's poetry with him.
Rhyme and music flow in plenty
For the lad of one and twenty,
But Spring for him is no more now
Than daisies to a munching cow;
Just a cheery pleasant season,
Daisy buds to live at ease on.
He's forgotten how he smiled
And shrieked at snowdrops when a child."

As reason wakes, lads find themselves asked to accept not only the dumbfounding universe but monstrous social and political accumulations; and, for the most part, religious ideals tangled with fabulous legend. For all this there is no simple and clear defence; even genius is at a loss to create so much as an appearance of straightforwardness or to deduce a practical course which you can pretend is, or has been, followed. This world's sublimest tact is the inept stare that refuses to see difficulties. Youngsters laugh, however seriously minded, for laughter is their one escape from the awe-inspiring immensity of the imposition. The more comprehensive the mind the more kinds of relief it seeks in laughter. The young man who guys love, art, science, justice and the Bible is usually he who is most naturally gifted for pursuing ideals of affection, beauty, truth, righteousness and reverence. The middle-aged forget what they laughed at in youth: for my own part I cannot recall that there was any limit either of decency or reverence; Rabelais had not gone too far. Aristophanes proves that Athenian taste forbade no jest. And while the laugh rings in his ear no young fellow of parts is inclined to deny it a universal privilege. I have even seen one joke about toothache while writhing with it. We first discover subjects that are no laughing matter under the lash of predicted consequences, as we accept servitude to social and political ends; then we begin in revenge to outlaw indecency and irreverence. The young and gifted are right, æsthetic training and intellectual power must achieve an Attic freedom. We need not wonder then to find a young captain-poet writing in a jocular vein about his own wounds and death, and every subject that touches him with at all similar force. The quality of his laughter is all that concerns us; and this, let me hasten to assure the long faces, is irreverent rather than indecent, fantastic rather than boisterous. Now faces are long because they have not laughed enough, not because they have been wise.

The æsthetic expression of a comic sense is perhaps the most difficult problem taste has to face. The success of a jest, as Shakespeare said, "lies in the ear." Men become less ticklish and laugh less as life proceeds. A child so enjoys laughing it hardly needs a jest to set it off, and right on up to extreme old age no tears are more grateful than those squeezed out when both aching sides have to be held. But this physical enjoyment bribes the taste to be indulgent; that we have laughed rebukes all censure of a jest, just as not to have laughed puts our judgment out of court. But taste, like the soldier, must face all odds and strive to remain honest and delicate, in spite of the natural man.

Captain Robert Graves' humour attains a kind and degree of success similar to that of Robert Nichols' effort after beauty—glimpses and promises of felicity but not much more; and he also finds a rival in Siegfried Sassoon, who sounds a like note of fantastic levity in his Noah and Policeman. This third star in the tiny constellation has on the whole the most definite character, a ray whose spectrum is more nearly unique. Many of his poems deal with the childhood he has so recently quit, in its home rather than its school side; he seems to remain constantly aware of his knickerbocker self and of the family he made one of. Nonsense and laughter are still the happy relief from a probably more mature daily habit, which his rank might seem to infer—relief even after the most terrible experiences of trench life.

"Through long nursery nights he stood
By my bed unwearying,
Loomed gigantic, formless, queer,
Purring in my haunted ear
That same hideous nightmare thing,
Talking as he lapped my blood,
In a voice cruel and flat,
Saying for ever: 'Cat! . . . Cat! . . . Cat! . . .'

········

Morphia-drowsed, again I lay
In a crater by High Wood:
He was there with straddling legs,
Staring eyes as big as eggs,
Purring as he lapped my blood,
His black bulk darkening the day—
With a voice cruel and flat,
'Cat! . . . Cat! . . . Cat!' he said. 'Cat! . . . Cat! . . .'"

 

ESCAPE

"August 6, 1916. Officer previously reported died of wounds, now reported wounded:—Graves, Captain R., Royal Welsh Fusiliers."

But I was dead, an hour or more.
I woke when I'd already passed the door
That Cerberus guards, and half-way down the road
To Lethe, as an old Greek signpost showed . . .
Dear Lady Proserpine . . .
Cleared my poor buzzing head and sent me back . . .
Breathless, with leaping heart along the track.
After me roared and clattered angry hosts
Of demons, heroes, and policemen-ghosts . . .
There's still some morphia that I bought on leave.
Then swiftly Cerberus' wide mouth I cram
With army biscuit smeared with ration jam; . . .
A crash; the beast blocks up the corridor
With monstrous hairy carcase, red and dun—
Too late! for I've sped through.
O Life! O sun!

This vivid resilience occurs not only after the most cruel physical agony, but during the long wearing-down of winter in the trenches—as difficult to bear as protracted toothache.


TO ROBERT NICHOLS

From Frise on the Somme in February, 1917, in answer to a letter saying: "I am just finishing my Faun's Holiday. I wish you were here to feed him with cherries."

Here by a snow-bound river
In scrapen holes we shiver,
And like old bitterns we
Boom to you plaintively:
Robert, how can I rhyme
Verses for your desire—
Sleek fauns and cherry-time,
Vague music and green trees,
Hot sun and gentle breeze, England in June attire
And life born young again
For your gay goatish brute . . .
Lips dark with juicy stain,
Ears hung with bobbing fruit?
Why should I keep him time?
Why in this cold and rime,
Where even to dream is pain?
No, Robert, there's no reason;
Cherries are out of season,
Ice grips at branch and root,
And singing birds are mute.

His range is from Strong Beer to Christ, but is rather of theme than of mood, another hint of a more set character. Here is some half-mystical nonsense on the temptation in the wilderness:

"He held communion
With the she-pelican
Of lonely piety.
Basilisk, cockatrice,
Flocked to his homilies,
With mail of dread device, . . .
With eager dragon eyes;
And ever with him went . . .
Comrade, with ragged coat,
Gaunt ribs—poor innocent— . . .
The guileless old scapegoat;
For forty nights and days
Followed in Jesus' ways,
Sure guard behind Him kept,
Tears like a lover wept."

He confesses that even at trystings with a lady a third is always present.


THE SPOIL-SPORT

My familiar ghost again
Comes to see what he can see,
Critic, son of Conscious Brain,
Spying on our privacy.

The passages already quoted prove that, as a poet, he is disinclined to think effort worth while, and easily consents to imperfections characteristic of that phase of skill which distinguishes play from a profession. Colin Clout is more gentlemanly than Paradise Lost, even though it be less worthy of man.

"What could be dafter
Than John Skelton's laughter?
What sound more tenderly
Than his pretty poetry?
So where to rank old Skelton?
He was no monstrous Milton
Nor wrote no Paradise Lost,
So wondered at by most,
Praised so disdainfully,
Composed so painfully.
He struck what Milton missed,
Milling an English grist
With homely turn and twist.
He was English through and through,
Not Greek, nor French, nor Jew,
Though well their tongues he knew. . . ."

Yet, as good old Skelton pled:

"For though my rhime be ragged,
Tattered and jagged,
Rudely rain-beaten,
Rusty and moth-eaten,
If ye take well therewith,
It hath in it some pith."

A just claim; besides there is something ideal about absence of strain; greatness has in Milton undoubtedly taken itself a shade too seriously. However, in the end one perhaps likes our humorist best when he is gravest.


1915

I've watched the Season passing slow, so slow,
In fields between La Bassée and Bethune;
Primroses and the first warm day of Spring,
Red poppy floods of June,
August, and yellowing Autumn, so
To Winter nights knee-deep in mud or snow,
And you've been everything.


Dear, you've been everything that I most lack
In these soul-deadening trenches—pictures, books,
Music, the quiet of an English wood,
Beautiful comrade-looks,
The narrow, bouldered mountain-track,
The broad, full-bosomed ocean, green and black,
And Peace, and all that's good.

Yes, he is the man who does not forget, whom to-day does not absorb; he remains conscious of a crowd of younger selves, and of those distant places which have coloured his thought. At the front the absent are "everything," and after death "everything" becomes the lost friend. A complex and delicately poised nature, but perhaps lacking the passion and impetus that can shape large and difficult themes. Watts might have painted a young man leading a child through Gehenna and preventing its terror by keeping it laughing, but such allegories are not necessary or obvious enough for successful plastic treatment even by a great painter. Christophe's statue, Le Masque, is better conceived; a smiling artificial visage still fronts the world from which the real agonised head has fallen back. From one view—

"vois ce souris fin et voluptueux
Où la fatuité promène son extase";

while from the other—

"voici, crispée atrocement
La véritable tête, et la sincère face
Renversée à l'abri de la face qui ment,"

as Baudelaire describes the well-known masterpiece in the Jardin des Tuileries. Only I think to substitute a man for the woman would heighten the effect, and for this the imagination can relieve our young captain of his accoutrements and exchange his gas mask for one which laughs. Yes, nimble youth plays with life and death, and interchanges agony with ecstasy, even as laughter sheds tears for very pleasure.


Those who shall gaze back a century hence may discern rather in Nichols than in Sassoon or Graves the poet's mind that is independent of time and approaches all human circumstance with the kinsman's joy or pain. It will depend on what they are yet to write, which of these three those distant readers are best able to strip and set free in the Palæstra of immortal youth with Grenfell and Brooke—companions meet for those who read with Plato or those who, a-horseback, passed Pheidias on the road, and who, also, most of them, matured and became different when Death had picked his favourites out.

  1. Ardours and Endurances. By Robert Nichols. Chatto & Windus.
  2. The Old Huntsman and Other Poems Heinemann. 5s.
  3. Counter-Attack and Other Poems. Siegfried Sassoon. Heinemann. 2s. 6d.