Some soldier poets/F. W. Harvey
"Flower-like and shy
You stand, sweet mortal, at the river's brim:
With what unconscious grace
Your limbs to some strange law surrendering
Which lifts you clear of our humanity!
Now would I sacrifice
Your breathing, warmth, and all the strange romance
Of living to a moment! Ere you break
The greater thing than you, I would my eyes
Were basilisk to turn you to a stone.
So should you be the world's inheritance,
And souls of unborn men should draw their breath
From mortal you, immortalised in Death."
Human beauty, that "greater thing than you," haunts mankind. Its complex attraction maddens not only saints and artists but every honest heart. To arrest it, to keep it steadily in view is our greatest need, yet like the wind it is here and is gone. Having moved men like a hurricane to prove by devastation that their race or their religion is its chosen vehicle, it will be content to fondle a child with caressing indulgence, turning her self-will "to favour and to prettiness." Generations have sought to mew it in a sentence, to immortalise it as the memory of a man or the record of a god's visit. Some have claimed that only perfect form could express it, while others find eloquent a "visage more marred than that of any man," capable of suffering a greater persecution than any other creature. The notion that this revelation may wholly possess one of ourselves, one who may stand emptied of it like a vacant house an hour hence, is old and beautiful. Yes, one lovely moment of a single life may have uttered what millions of completed lives have stammered over unintelligibly; this thought begets that agony of fondness that would entrust the brief perfection of young persons to stone or metal rather than leave it to fading flesh. Elroy Flecker, a young poet recently dead, rivals the beautiful lines quoted above with a similar invention:
"Had I the power
To Midas given of old
To touch a flower
And leave its petals gold,
I then might touch thy face,
And leave a metal grace
A graven joy.
Thus would I slay—
Ah, desperate device!
The vital day
That trembles in thine eyes,
And let the red lips close
Which sang so well
And drive away the rose
To leave a shell."
This vivid estimation of human beauty is proof of a deep well of poetic power.
"Star of my soul, thou gazest
Upon the starry skies;
I envy Heaven, that watches
Thy face with countless eyes."
So Plato sang, and still, in spite of astronomy; the worth of this soul-thrilled comeliness can counterbalance the magnitude of stellar regions and remove all terror from the unclouded night. So great a power has human beauty when we are alone with ourselves; and yet few ideas have had less weight in councils of war and parliaments of peace. Commerce has been permitted to oppress and ambition to outrage it to any extent.
But let us return to the poem I first cited. Lieutenant Harvey, who won the D.C.M. as lance-corporal, was allowed by the German authorities to send it and a little volume of others home from the prison camp at Gütersloh. Many judges would not admit that his poem is a rival to Flecker's, and the last couplet does weaken its effect; but then Flecker weakened his by two stanzas which I have not quoted. Lt. Harvey's volume gives proof of a varied and powerful soul; but it peeps at us from a prison of trivial amusement, banal tricks and rhymes, things that Flecker was all his short poet-life at conscious war with, staving them further and further back from his small garden of verse; whereas Harvey hardly seems conscious that they confine and baffle the wings of his Pegasus. The gleams of pure poetry that flash past the bars of his everyday mentality are not alone passages of felicity, but there are also fine inevitable poem-shapes, marred in execution—not so much, as in Sorley's case, from lack of time to finish; no, rather as though a strange, insensitive, surface-personality intervened and "gambolled from the matter" in repeating what had been conceived. When I first read his volume I said, "No, I cannot write about this man," and laid it aside for weeks; then I happened to open it at the lines I have quoted and immediately began to search for other signs of power in the mass of smart or pretty trifles, and I found a few. He addresses a fallen comrade—
"Swift-footed, fleeter yet
Of heart. Swift to forget
The petty spite that life or men could show you:
Your last long race is won,
But beyond the sound of gun
You laugh and help men onward—if I know you."
But we wonder whether he had himself heard the rhythm of the first three lines when we next read—
"O still you laugh and walk
And sing and frankly talk."
A doubt arises even over the second three lines—the fatal influence of a trick of facile rhyming seems already to tame in them the soaring stroke—but with this last couplet we are waddling on ground.
"What is it the breeze says
In London streets to-day
Unto the troubled trees
Whose shadows strew the way,
Whose leaves are all a-flutter?
'You are wild!' the rascal cries.
The green tree beats its wings
And fills the air with sighs.
'Wild! wild!' the rascal sings.
But your feet are in the gutter!
Men pass beneath the trees
Walking the pavement grey,
They hear the whisperings tease
And at the word he utters
Their hearts are green and gay.
Then like the gay, green trees,
They beat proud wings to fly,
But like the fluttering trees,
Their footprints mark the gutters
Until the beggars die."
This poem has great beauty of structure; it follows an inevitable course from outstart to the happy last line. Yet the first line for the sake of a pat rhyme is contorted and rendered ambiguous to the ear and really runs—
"What is it says the breeze"—
which seems to demand punctuation thus—
"'What is it?' says the breeze"—
whereas the sense is as I have amended it. Besides this, the two latter stanzas distinctly fall off in aptness of phrase as compared with the first two.
The poems entitled Recognition and The Little Road and the first of the two Ballades are also not only truly inspired and well designed, but spoilt in similar ways. His interests and sentiments have perhaps a wider range than with most of these poets, and are almost all commendable and endearing, only it is expression makes the poet, and here the general effect is easy-going and commonplace. No doubt the facility with which he is amused by the first-coming features of his own work and of the world is a sign of youth, and makes his width of range the more promising. It is rare indeed to find in work, the general allure of which is so casual, lines so just, direct and impassioned as were the first five I quoted from him, moving with their own movement, uncontrolled by the conventional notions of form which are habitual with their author; and they certainly should set expectancy on tiptoe for what he will produce during the next few years. Every honest heart is at moments maddened by a glimpse of beauty in behaviour or in persons: then their thought suddenly darts upward as though a robin were possessed by the soul of a lark. Was this such a moment, or are the other poems the tawdry swaddling of a still unconscious master? Ability there is plenty of; his mundane effectiveness may reach the level of Kipling's.
"In general, if you want a man to do a dangerous job:—
Say, swim the Channel, climb St Paul's, or break into and rob
The Bank of England, why, you find his wages must be higher
Than if you merely wanted him to light the kitchen fire.
But in the British Army it's just the other way,
And the maximum of danger means the minimum of pay."
Perhaps in the future all journalists may be trained to this degree of cunning, and then, perhaps before the end of time, they may sicken even the average man with smartness in verse.
Strangest of all, this lover of beauty and this captive of momentary effect have been once at least fused consciously and inextricably in a single poem, a successful poem.
God dreamed a man;
Then, having firmly shut
Life like a precious metal in his fist
Withdrew, His labour done. Thus did begin
Our various divinity and sin.
For some to ploughshares did the metal twist,
And others—dreaming empires—straightway cut
Crowns for their aching foreheads. Others beat
Long nails and heavy hammers for the feet
Of their forgotten Lord. (Who dares to boast
That he is guiltless?) Others coined it: most
Did with it—simply nothing. (Here again
Who cries his innocence?) Yet doth remain
Metal unmarred, to each man more or less,
Whereof to fashion perfect loveliness.
For me, I do but bear within my hand
(For sake of Him our Lord, now long forsaken)
A simple bugle such as may awaken
With one high morning note a drowsing man:
That wheresoe'er within my motherland
The sound may come, 'twill echo far and wide
Like pipes of battle calling up a clan,
Trumpeting men through beauty to God's side.
Second thoughts are best, and this seems made entirely of first thoughts; images, attitude, everything; and yet it is inevitably shaped to a whole that is itself throughout. The mad passion for beauty can do so much even with cheap and hackneyed material. In the uncouth, though familiar, garb of crazy common-sense this young soldier stands among the crowd and blows his bugle, half conscious of the drab disguise, half hoping it will fall and he find himself naked as Achilles; and why should he not open his eyes and "behold the mountain full of horses and chariots of fire"?
- "Gloucestershire Friends. By Lieutenant F. W. Harvey. Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd. 2s. 6d. Quotations by permission of Mrs Harvey and of Bishop Frodsham.
- Translated by Kenneth Freeman: Schools of Hellas.