Some soldier poets/Richard Aldington

As the year nineteen hundred approached and was passed young men said: "We are the new century. How shall we differ from the old?" And elder folk said: "Of course the new century must be different; let us try and welcome it." Young poets, who wish to prove that they are a new sort, embrace theories and think that these lend them importance; obviously they have not produced enough work to claim the authority of masters, so they must needs borrow if they wish to impose. Unfortunately, theory descrbies art but cannot create. No work succeeds because it conforms to rules; bad and good works alike exemplify the practice of all schools.

The "Imagists" are one small twig of a branch of the new tree made by forking movements. They plead that they are not rebels, and point out how, at least in English, verse free from rhyme and conventional rhythms has always existed; besides, they admire, nay worship, the past. None the less they publish a manifesto, and prove their doctrine to be impressionistic.

"The 'exact' word does not mean the word which exactly describes the object in itself, it means the 'exact' word which brings the effect of that object before the reader as it presented itself to the poet's mind at the time of writing the poem."[1]

The value of a poem cannot consist in informing us how a poet felt at a given moment; it may tell us this, but its value will lie in the quality of his feeling and the felicity with which it takes shape. This form is a growth like other organisms. If, as it grows, the poet says, "But I did not feel like this or think of that when the impulse started me off; I am adulterating my inspiration with afterthoughts," he checks and thwarts this growth, and turns his work into a scientific document about how he once felt, which possibly has very little interest for science.

The effect of this mistake is clearly seen in the triviality and poverty of many Imagist poems. But Nature takes no notice of creeds and sects and nicknames, and has given Richard Aldington such love of beauty as amounts almost to passion, and to H. D., his wife and compeer, such passion as must create beauty, despite no matter what crippling theory. There is, of course, no such thing as legitimate or illegitimate among æsthetic means and forms. Success in fulfilling its own nature is the sole criterion by which a poem should be judged. This happy couple are scholars as well as poets, and have contributed excellent work to The Poets' Translation Series.

A lover of beauty is hurt every day in London, where ruthless commercialism has produced a hell almost as dreadful as that created by ruthless militarism in Flanders. Such a man feels and resents a nameless hostility, yet he may deem it a kind of desertion to take refuge in dreams of old Italy and ancient Greece. He wishes to be loyal to his own day even if it can only be by enlarging on his sufferings.


WHITECHAPEL[2]

Noise!
Iron hoofs, iron wheels, iron din
Of drays and trams and feet passing;
Iron
Beaten to a vast mad cacophony.


In vain the shrill, far cry
Of swallows sweeping by:
In vain the silence and green
Of meadows Apriline;
In vain the clear white rain—


Soot; mud;
A nation maddened with labour;
Interminable collision of energies—
Iron beating upon iron,
Smoke whirling upwards,
Speechless, impotent.


In vain the shrill, far cry
Of kittiwakes that fly
Where the sea waves leap green.
The meadows Apriline—


Noise, iron, smoke;
Iron, Iron, Iron.

To my ear and understanding this is improved by the omission of lines 1, 11, 16, 21 and 22. Accumulations of nouns and adjectives are characteristic of imagists, inelegancies of syntax give much of their work the air of a translation, as though the difficulty of following a foreign idiom had overstrained the resources of the writer.


PEOPLE

Why should you try to crush me?
Am I so Christ-like?


You beat against me
Immense waves, filthy with refuse.
I am the last upright of a smashed breakwater,
But you shall not crush me
Though you bury me in foaming slime
And hiss your hatred about me.


You break over me, cover me;
I shudder at the contact;
Yet I pierce through you
And stand up, torn, dripping, shaken,
But whole and fierce.

This is far better, but a true poet is rarely at his best in the expression of personal antagonism. Admiration and delight create beauty.

"Like a gondola of green scented fruits
Drifting along the dark canals at Venice,
You, O exquisite one,
Have entered my desolate city.


The blue smoke leaps
Like swirling clouds of birds vanishing.
So my love leaps forth towards you,
Vanishes and is renewed.


The flower which the wind has shaken
Is soon filled again with rain,
So does my heart fill slowly with tears
Until you return."

Sensitive to beauty, yet a trifle over-ingenious; let us sample him in a more objective mood.


THE FAUN SEES SNOW FOR THE FIRST TIME

Zeus,
Brazen-thunder-hurler,
Cloud-whirler, son-of-Kronos,
Send vengeance on these Oreads
Who strew
White frozen flecks of mist and cloud
Over the brown trees and the tufted grass
Of the meadows, where the stream
Runs black through shining banks
Of bluish white.


Zeus,
Are the halls of heaven broken up
That you flake down upon me
Feather-strips of marble?


Dis and Styx!
When I stamp my hoof
The frozen-cloud-specks jam into the cleft
So that I reel upon two slippery points . . .


Fool, to stand here cursing
When I might be running!

I find this almost convincing, more so than Ledwidge's Wife of Llew; yet it too savours of pedantry when compared with Sorley's Runners.


AT NIGHTS

At nights I sit here,
Shading my eyes, shutting them if you glance up,
Pretending to doze,
And watching you,
Thinking.
I think of when I first saw the beauty of things—
God knows I was poor enough and sad enough
And humiliated enough—
But not all the slights and the poorness and the worry
Could hide away the green of the poplar leaves,
The ripple and light of the little stream,
The pattern of the ducks' feathers,
The dawns I saw in the winter
When I went shooting,
The summer walks and the winter walks,
The hot days with the cows coming down to the water,
The flowers,
Buttercups and meadow-sweet and hog's parsley,
And the larks singing in the morning, and the thrushes
Trilling at dusk when I went out into the fields
Muttering poetry.


I looked at the world as God did
When first He made it.
I saw that it was good.
And now at nights,
Now that everything has gone right somehow,
And I have friends and books
And no more bitterness,
I sit here, shading my eyes,
Peeping at you, watching you,
Thinking.

Good! He is truly himself, but the mood has hardly momentum enough to create perfect form. But when at last we get passion we get song.


AFTER TWO YEARS

She is all so slight
And tender and white
As a May morning.
She walks without hood
At dusk. It is good
To hear her sing.


It is God's will
That I shall love her still
As He loves Mary.
And night and day
I will go forth to pray
That she love me.

There is a third stanza, but it rather detracts from these two, which are perfect in and by themselves.

Since I wrote the above Richard Aldington has augmented his gift to the world by two tiny volumes.[3] Reverie and The Love Poems of Myrrhine and Konallis. This last adds a new facet to his talent, for it covers the same ground as Les Amours de Bilitis, by Pierre Louis, compared to which these paragraphs seem shrunk, faint and uninspired. Unenglish pedantries such as "golden-hyacinth-curled hair" or "golden-wrought knees" or "vine-leaf-carved armlet" affect us like the despair of a translator after scratching his head for a long time. "Gold-flowered-crowned drink" indeed! A rhetorical use of such adjectives as white, swift, silver, golden, also detracts from that physical precision which is the glory of English. Yet the choice perfume of these poems haunts the mind. Christian civilisation has in nothing so failed to uphold its Founder's criterions as in censoriousness. Moral disparagement of one sort or another permeates it. "Judge not that ye be not judged" looms from far in the dim and impracticable. Young men are, however, often open-minded and gentle towards sexual licentiousness; it comes easily to them. Allowing for this, I still think that these spare paragraphs, which so poorly represent strophes, are redolent with that temper which not only refrains from censure, but does not judge, though in his case armed with what is called "the best right to." These outworn forms of pagan life are regarded simply and graciously, if a trifle fondly. So to cherish distant things is rare; and their faded colours revive under its kindness, as the dust-scored effacement of some broken shell of a freshly excavated vase might be vivified by a passing shower.

H. D. takes us into another world, the tragic world of those who strive with the Sphinx. Is what we see controlled from the outside, or does the cosmos live? Are we ourselves shaped by inspiration or by the pressure of conditions? And if there are two forces, which will be master in the long run? Passionate minds grapple with this problem; their doubts, their faiths, their despairs are the result. Goethe's Prometheus is the first modern poem that shakes us with these emotions, and declares unending war on all external tyrants, however strong. His maturity could not finish what he had written; the crisis was past, less tragic questions engrossed his attention; but I venture to think that H. D.'s Pygmalion touches as great moments as did his insuppressibly creative Titan whose defiance cries out to Zeus:

"Here sit I, and fashion men
After mine own image,
Of like temper with me,
To suffer and weep.
To enjoy and rejoice
And heed thee as little
As I."

Leopardi and Arnold have since produced great poems in this key: the doomed fragility of the lovely broom bush on the slopes of Vesuvius is an apt and moving image for the despair inspired by the stupendous inequality between what is exquisite within and brutal without; and in Arnold's Empedocles the despair of the man who has neglected life for thought is strangely capped by youth's serene joy in the harmonious world which it inherits. But H. D.'s sculptor, whose statues come to life, not, as in the old story, to content as a mistress or comfort as a wife, but silently to leave him in disdain, or as though they were of too different a nature to commune with him, discovers new abysses of tragic emotion for the indomitable creator's loneliness, ignorance and relative insignificance.

The poem is too long and ill put together to quote as a whole. Too many images are used: that of fire, that of heat, and that of light, no doubt of intense distinctness to the writer, collide together and confuse the reader, who has not shared the long meditations which preceded the pangs and joys of creation. Fortunately by simple omission a satisfying simplicity can be obtained.


PYGMALION

·····

I made god upon god
Step from the cold rock,
I made the gods less than men,
For I was a man and they my work.

·····

And now what is it that has come to pass?

·····

"Each of the gods, perfect
Cries out from a perfect throat:
You are useless;
No marble can bind me
No stone suggest.
They have melted into the light
And I am desolate.
They have melted
Each from his plinth,
Each one departs.


They have gone:
What agony can express my grief?
Each from his marble base
Has stepped into the light
And my work is for naught."

And after this, though before the passage occurs in the poem, the bereaved sculptor enters on an agony of interpretation.

"Which am I
The stone or the power
Which lifts the rock from the earth?"

Or again—

"Which is the god,
Which the stone
The god takes for his use?"

The question debated would seem to be whether he was the power which created those gods or whether he himself had been made by the power which took them away. Is he himself the god? "or is this arrogance?" or are they, his handiwork, the power that shapes him unperceived? But although most of it is pregnant with splendid suggestions, I can make neither head nor tail of it as it stands. Now what I have quoted is grander poetry than anything I have read, either in French or in English, produced by the so-called rebel poets. This cry over the soul's effort that is lost in the world is grander than anything I have quoted from these Soldier Poets. Have we not seen man's wonderful creations go out from the workshop and join themselves to the hostile gods, the inclement conditions of his life. How many creeds, how many social orders that seemed stable and trustworthy have melted into air! or, like soiled and rusting weapons, gangrened wounds dealt those they were fashioned to defend! Vast wealth, created at immense cost in toil, in shame, in wrong and in suffering, is even now being used to damage and destroy men on a huger scale than earthquakes achieve. This image goes deeper than the forlorn agony of the artist; it is a universal tragedy that what we make makes us and then breaks us like a hostile power; and can we know that we are shaped by divinity, when it is the outside pressure that hews roughly and desecrates our hopes? Passion and power are present in others of H. D.'s poems, but nowhere else so successfully.

Like Orestes and Electra, this young poet and poetess stand hand in hand, and a sculptor might well draw a splendid inspiration from their intrepidity; but perhaps painting could better express how they face the colossal wickedness of the modern world and its tragedy, as the children of Agamemnon faced the cumulative murderous treacheries of "Pelops' line." Young, severe, and determined to live and die in defence of that ideal beauty that for us as for them is called Greece, let us picture them under the dark pall of the war, but behind them a glimpse of those blue seas and temple-crowned cliffs. Or shall he show her his hands as in a little prose poem written from the trenches?

"I am grieved for our hands, our hands that have caressed roses and women's flesh, old lovely books and marbles of Carrara. I am grieved for our hands that were so reverent in beauty's service, so glad of beauty's tresses, hair and silken robe and gentle fingers, so glad of beauty of bronze and wood and stone and rustling parchment. So glad, so reverent, so white. . . .

"I am grieved for our hands. . . ."

She holds the torch near to look and its light floods her face, while he smiles, for she reveals her own unconscious beauty in the act of pitying his hands, blunted, stiffened and begrimed by his foul task.

  1. Some Imagist Poets. Constable & Co. 1915. Quotations by permission of Lieutenant Richard Aldington.
  2. Images. Richard Aldington. The Poetry Bookshop.
  3. Privately issued by Charles C. Bubb at his Private Press, Cleveland. 1917.