Some soldier poets/Julian Grenfell

Some soldier poets  (1920) 
Julian Grenfell

The war has confounded matter-of-fact calculation and made most people aware of unprized volcanic resources in human nature. However, some men, many young men, have always felt moved, supported or opposed by agencies of which they could give no consistent account to the seasoned worldling. Rhythms and cadences which express or seem to lead on to the expression of life's hidden value take possession of young minds, control and contort their speech into jangling rhyme which, since the war, has acquired increasing popularity, till critics remember how during the wars of Napoleon verse sold better than prose, and wonder whether this may not happen again. The customs and cares of civil life dishearten and depress, and a run on poetry would be proof of reawakened sensibility. Let us hope that England, where life has seemed both stablest and stalest, is to be refreshed by a wave of finer enthusiasm. The young will feel it first, for they are never stale or established. Of all the young men whom England has sent out to fight, he who has produced the best poem seems to have least hesitated, answering the call to fight with ecstatic joy.

Captain the Hon. Julian H. F. Grenfell, D.S.O., was born on 30th March 1888, obtained a commission in the 1st Royal Dragoons in September, 1909, and died of wounds on 26th May 1915, having written the following poem about a month earlier:—


The naked earth is warm with Spring,
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun's gaze glorying,
And quivers in the sunny breeze;
And life is Colour and Warmth and Light,
And a striving evermore for these;
And he is dead who will not fight,
And who dies fighting has increase.

The fighting man shall from the sun
Take warmth, and life from glowing earth;
Speed with the light-foot winds to run
And with the trees to newer birth;
And find, when fighting shall be done,
Great rest, and fulness after dearth.

All the bright company of Heaven
Hold him in their bright comradeship,
The Dog star, and the Sisters Seven,
Orion's belt and sworded hip:

The woodland trees that stand together,
They stand to him each one a friend;
They gently speak in the windy weather;
They guide to valley and ridges end.

The kestrel hovering by day,
And the little owls that call by night,
Bid him be swift and keen as they,
As keen of ear, as swift of sight.

The blackbird sings to him: "Brother, brother,
If this be the last song you shall sing,
Sing well, for you may not sing another;
Brother, sing."

In dreary doubtful waiting hours,
Before the brazen frenzy starts,
The horses show him nobler powers;—
O patient eyes, courageous hearts!

And when the burning moment breaks,
And all things else are out of mind,
And only joy of battle takes
Him by the throat and makes him blind,

Through joy and blindness he shall know,
Not caring much to know, that still
Nor lead nor steel shall reach him, so
That it be not the Destined Will.

The thundering line of battle stands,
And in the air Death moans and sings;
But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,
And Night shall fold him in soft wings.

Many readers are exhilarated by this who cannot be at the pains to ravel out its secret; and I propose to help them, that the impression may last longer and satisfy more completely. Young Grenfell exults at fulfilling an inborn promise. At last he feels free to be what instinct and capacity make him; general consent and his own conscience permit him to kill and to die. The ecstasy is like that of married love: a fundamental instinct can be gratified untaxed by inward loss or damage and with the approval of mankind. Harmony between impulse and circumstance creates this joy; but not only is it more complex than that of the young male stag who attacks the leader of the herd, there is in it an element of quite a different order, a sense that wrong within can be defeated by braving evil abroad. The strain between worldly custom and that passion for good which begets spiritual insight, finds relief in fighting, looks for peace in death. Only the noblest spirits when young so intolerably feel this strain that they welcome such an end as delicious satisfaction. Acquiescence in evil seems to them too high a price to pay for life. As though it were a devil, they would cast out all complicity with it from themselves as from others. This is the focus of their activity and until it is found they have no peace. Shelley is recognised as a type of the young poet, and this eagerness to attack evil in the world and this readiness to die characterise him, though his weapon was the pen and he faced death in crazy boats and fever-stricken hovels and not in battle.

The intimate delicacy and justness of this marvellous lyric will appear more brilliantly yet if we contrast the aspects which arouse its eloquence with those more commonly selected when the theme is war.

Throughout the poem no hint is given of the nature of the enemy; he does not proclaim, as so many have done, that he fights for right or against tyranny. He does not himself look forward to tasting the fruits of victory; he accepts death as the natural necessary reward of taking up arms. Even in peace he had chosen to serve by being ready to fight. Yet he does not cry up devotion to England. You will say his was obvious. That is just it, true poetry does not say what is unnecessary.

That a young man of this gentleness should be glad both to kill and be killed shows that the martyr and the soldier are not opposite types but stand before the deeply moved conscience as equal heroes. Both are finest when each most resembles the other: the martyr, courageous, unflinching, capable of detachment and courtesy to the last: the soldier, conscientious, humane and unaggressive: St Stephen and St George. The quality of emotion in these stanzas will serve as a touchstone to imperialist and pacifist theories. True peace is not signed by governments, but is something never yet achieved on earth. That so-called peace which preceded the war must have created the exultant relief to have done with it which this young man felt. And we know he was right, we know its foul shame, we know how unworthy it was of the name we so fondly gave it. Peace indeed!

The sanity of a true inspiration is miraculous and avoids errors which we all breathe and utter, and yet does not fall into the opposition of that half illumination which, like a bee on a window-pane, angrily buzzes itself to death because it sees but cannot enter the light. Neither is it passive, disclaiming part and parcel in humanity's tragedy, as though there were any other means of support than man's widespread good will. Men and nations, we all depend for what we are permitted to be on friendliness and co-operation.

The senses both of mind and body are tender, all callousness impairs them. The slaves of machinery, with their real-politik and subserviency to fact, are in all countries striving to stifle liberty, poetry, joy. But kindness is stronger than discipline and courtesy more victorious than munitions.

Since I wrote this a pamphlet[1] has been published with extracts from Julian Grenfell's letters; these strengthen and endorse the impression received from his poem. He was a born fighter: there is a wonderful description of a boxing match he had with a champion at Johannesburg, too long to quote here but very worth reading. After he had been knocked down three times he remarks that his "head was clearing." Yet he can also write:

"I hate material books, centred on whether people are successful. I like books about artists and philosophers and dreamers, anybody who is just a little bit off his dot."

Success in this present world is a little incompatible with real success; one is a trifle beside the mark of the other even when they seem to coincide.

"I longed to be able to say that I liked it, after all that one has heard of being under fire for the first time. But it is beastly. I pretended to myself for a bit that I liked it, but it was no good; it only made me careless and unwatchful and self-absorbed; but when one acknowledged to oneself that it was beastly, one became all right again and cool."

So his head began to clear again just in time.

"Here we are in the burning centre of it all, and I would not be anywhere else for a million pounds and the Queen of Sheba."

Consciously or unconsciously he repeats the sentiment that Shakespeare put into the mouth of Henry V. at Agincourt and Sir Henry Newbolt into Nelson's in his Admirals All. That sentiment characterises the born leader: when facing danger he feels that he is where he can best prove what he is. He felt "utterly ashamed" of himself when he had met a German officer prisoner with a scowl, the other looked so "proud, so resolute, smart and confident in his hour of bitterness." This instant challenge and rebuke of himself was akin to his mastery and initiative. He begged to be allowed to go out into "No Man's Land" stalking Germans, and was refused. At last:

"They told me to take a section with me, and I said I would rather cut my throat and have done with it. So they let me go alone."

His experiences are as good reading as the fight at Johannesburg, but too long to quote.

"I got back at a sort of galloping crawl and sent a message to the 10th that the Germans were moving up their way in some numbers.... They made quite a ridiculous fuss about me stalking, and getting the message through.... It was up to someone to do it instead of leaving it all to the Germans and losing two officers a day through snipers. All our men have started it now. It is a popular amusement."

But first is first to-day just as when David met Goliath. A piece of bursting shell has deprived us of a great leader, with the characteristics of the finest kings of men. And though wealthy enough to travel with dogs and horses wherever he went, he could not bear to think that a friend had deserted the Socialist cause out of respect for "the loaves and the fishes." This friend writes:

"I don't suppose many people knew what an ardent love he had for honesty of purpose and intellectual honesty, and what sacrifices he made for them—sacrifices of peace-of-mind abhorrent to most Englishmen ... caused himself no end of worry and unhappiness."

Yes, facing discomfort clears the will, as facing physical danger clears the head, and wrong within can be defeated by braving evil abroad. And now while intellectual honesty is at a premium I will confess that the last two lines of his Into Battle always disappoint me. They ring hollow and empty; it is as though he had been disturbed and scribbled in haste something that looks like an end but is not, and never given his mind to the poem again.

The other poems published since are slighter in mood and more boyish in execution. Though they are not bad, they are not good enough to enhance the effect of Into Battle.

Physically, mentally and morally splendid, he might seem to have done little in this world but be and be destroyed. Yet to have been, and to be known to have been such as he was, may well in time seem one of the grandest facts of these times. Such admiration as we owe to him is an experience as rare as it is beneficent, and will outlast a vast number of topics and crazes. Two phases of his worth he revealed even to those who never met him: the one in his poem, the other in his letters; and they tally as the like aspects have rarely tallied in other men. This proves the density of the integrity that was destroyed by a fragment of iron. He lay wounded a few weeks before he ceased to suffer.

The worst horror of modern war is not the vastness of its destructions but the number of spirits whom it enslaves to machinery; and in this it closely resembles modern peace. The plough lacerates the turf, many lowly and lovely lives are sacrificed that wheat may be sown and a taller, straighter growth raised to sustain a higher pulse of life. But how many of our modern machines create what is useless or harmful, at the expense of the best life both of those whose profit is intended and of those whom they exploit! Is there so much choice between the horrors of war and those of peace when they are truly estimated that the pacifist should prefer them or the imperialist wish to re-establish them? That men should be forced by the self-seeking of others to linger in want or to die in cruel torture is equally abhorrent. The hope of all generous spirits is to have done by means of the war with the peace that they have known and to usher in a better order. And Grenfell cheers this hope as few can, foreshowing a better proportioned life. The limpidity and strength of his emotion, though it creates beauty and reveals wisdom, was seconded by no matured art; yet those who have this at command are so liable to fail just where he succeeds, in sureness of aim.

  1. Julian Grenfell: A Memoir. By Viola Meynell. Burns & Oates. 1s.