The two years which preceded the outbreak of the war were marked in this country by a revival of public interest in the art of poetry. To this movement coherence was given and organisation introduced by Mr. Edward Marsh's now-famous volume entitled Georgian Poetry. The effect of this collection—for it is hardly correct to call it an anthology—of the best poems written by the youngest poets since 1911 was two-fold; it acquainted readers with work few had "the leisure or the zeal to investigate," and it brought the writers themselves together in a corporate and selected relation. I do not recollect that this had been done—except prematurely and partially by The Germ of 1850—since the England's Parnassus and England's Helicon of 1600. In point of fact the only real precursor of Mr. Marsh's venture in our whole literature is the Songs and Sonnettes of 1557, commonly known as Tottel's Miscellany. Tottel brought together, for the first time, the lyrics of Wyatt, Surrey, Churchyard, Vaux, and Bryan, exactly as Mr. Marsh called public attention to Rupert Brooke, James Elroy Flecker and the rest of the Georgians, and he thereby fixed the names of those poets, as Mr. Marsh has fixed those of our youngest fledglings, on the roll of English literature.
The general tone of the latest poetry, up to the moment of the outbreak of hostilities, was pensive, instinct with natural piety, given somewhat in excess to description of landscape, tender in feeling, essentially unaggressive except towards the clergy and towards other versifiers of an[Pg 262] earlier generation. There was absolutely not a trace in any one of the young poets of that arrogance and vociferous defiance which marked German verse during the same years. These English shepherds might hit at their elders with their staves, but they had turned their swords into pruning-hooks and had no scabbards to rattle. This is a point which might have attracted notice, if we had not all been too drowsy in the lap of our imperial prosperity to observe the signs of the times in Berlin. Why did no one call our attention to the beating of the big drum which was going on so briskly on the Teutonic Parnassus? At all events, there was no echo of such a noise in the "chambers of imagery" which contained Mr. Gordon Bottomley, or in Mr. W.H. Davies' wandering "songs of joy," or on "the great hills and solemn chanting seas" where Mr. John Drinkwater waited for the advent of beauty. And the guns of August 1914 found Mr. W.W. Gibson encompassed by "one dim, blue infinity of starry peace." There is a sort of German Georgian Poetry in existence; in time to come a comparison of its pages with those of Mr. Marsh may throw a side-light on the question, Who prepared the War?
The youngest poets were more completely taken by surprise in August 1914 than their elders. The earliest expressions of lyric military feeling came from veteran voices. It was only proper that the earliest of all should be the Poet Laureate's address to England, ending with the prophecy:—
"Much suffering shall cleanse thee!But thou through the floodShalt win to Salvation,To Beauty through blood."
As sensation, however, followed sensation in those first terrific and bewildering weeks, much was happening that[Pg 263] called forth with the utmost exuberance the primal emotions of mankind; there was full occasion for
"exultations, agonies,And love, and man's unconquerable mind."
By September a full chorus was vocal, led by our national veteran, Mr. Thomas Hardy, with his Song of the Soldiers:—
"What of the faith and fire within us,Men who march awayEre the barn-cocks sayNight is growing gray,To hazards whence no tears can win us;What of the faith and fire within us,Men who march away?"
Already, before the close of the autumn of 1914, four or five anthologies of war-poems were in the press, and the desire of the general public to be fed with patriotic and emotional verse was manifested in unmistakable ways. We had been accustomed for some time past to the issue of a multitude of little pamphlets of verse, often very carefully written, and these the critics had treated with an indulgence which would have whitened the hair of the stern reviewers of forty years ago. The youthful poets, almost a trade-union in themselves, protected one another by their sedulous generosity. It was very unusual to see anything criticised, much less "slated"; the balms of praise were poured over every rising head, and immortalities were predicted by the dozen. Yet, as a rule, the sale of these little poetic pamphlets had been small, and they had been read only by those who had a definite object in doing so.
The immediate success of the anthologies, however, proved that the war had aroused in a new public an ear for contemporary verse, an attention anxious to be stirred or soothed by the assiduous company of poets who had[Pg 264] been ripening their talents in a little clan. These had now an eager world ready to listen to them. The result was surprising; we may even, without exaggeration, call it unparalleled. There had never before, in the world's history, been an epoch which had tolerated and even welcomed such a flood of verse as was poured forth over Great Britain during the first three years of the war. Those years saw the publication, as I am credibly informed, of more than five hundred volumes of new and original poetry. It would be the silliest complaisance to pretend that all of this, or much of it, or any but a very little of it, has been of permanent value. Much of it was windy and superficial, striving in wild vague terms to express great agitations which were obscurely felt by the poet. There was too much of the bathos of rhetoric, especially at first; too much addressing the German as "thou fell, bloody brute," and the like, which broke no bones and took no trenches.
When once it was understood that, as a cancelled line in Tennyson's Maud has it,
"The long, long canker of peace was over and done,"
the sentiments of indignation and horror made themselves felt with considerable vivacity. In this direction, however, none of the youngest poets approached Sir Owen Seaman in the vigour of their invective. Most of them seemed to be overpowered by the political situation, and few could free themselves from their inured pacific habit of speech. Even when they wrote of Belgium, the Muse seemed rather to weep than to curse. Looking back to the winter of 1914, it is almost pathetic to observe how difficult it was for our easy-going British bards to hate the Germans. There was a good deal of ineffective violence, and considerable misuse of technical terms, caused, in many cases, by a too hasty reference to newspaper reports[Pg 265] of gallantry under danger, in the course of which the more or less obscure verbiage of military science was picturesquely and inaccurately employed. As the slightly censorious reader looks back upon these poems of the beginning of the War, he cannot resist a certain impatience. In the first place, there is a family likeness which makes it impossible to distinguish one writer from another, and there is a tendency to a smug approval of British prejudice, and to a horrible confidence in England's power of "muddling through," which look rather ghastly in the light of subsequent struggles.
There was, however, a new spirit presently apparent, and a much healthier one. The bards became soldiers, and in crossing over to France and Flanders, each had packed his flute in his kit. They began to send home verses in which they translated into music their actual experiences and their authentic emotions. We found ourselves listening to young men who had something new, and what was better, something noble to say to us, and we returned to the national spirit which inspired the Chansons de Geste in the eleventh century. To the spirit—but not in the least to the form, since it is curious that the war-poetry of 1914-17 was, even in the most skilful hands, poetry on a small scale. The two greatest of the primal species of verse, the Epic and the Ode, were entirely neglected, except, as will later be observed, in one notable instance by Major Maurice Baring. As a rule, the poets constrained themselves to observe the discipline of a rather confined lyrical analysis in forms of the simplest character. Although particular examples showed a rare felicity of touch, and although the sincerity of the reflection in many cases hit upon very happy forms of expression, it is impossible to overlook the general monotony. There used to be a story that the Japanese Government sent a committee of its best art-critics to study the[Pg 266] relative merits of the modern European painters, and that they returned with the bewildered statement that they could make no report, because all European pictures were exactly alike. A student from Patagonia might conceivably argue that he could discover no difference whatever between our various poets of the war.
This would be unjust, but it is perhaps not unfair to suggest that the determined resistance to all restraint, which has marked the latest school, is not really favourable to individuality. There has been a very general, almost a universal tendency to throw off the shackles of poetic form. It has been supposed that by abandoning the normal restraints, or artificialities, of metre and rhyme, a greater directness and fidelity would be secured. Of course, if an intensified journalistic impression is all that is desired, "prose cut up into lengths" is the readiest by-way to effect. But if the poets desire—and they all do desire—to speak to ages yet unborn, they should not forget that all the experience of history goes to prove discipline not unfavourable to poetic sincerity, while, on the other hand, the absence of all restraint is fatal to it. Inspiration does not willingly attend upon flagging metre and discordant rhyme, and never in the whole choral progress from Pindar down to Swinburne has a great master been found who did not exult in the stubbornness of "dancing words and speaking strings," or who did not find his joy in reducing them to harmony. The artist who avoids all difficulties may be pleased with the rapidity of his effect, but he will have the vexation of finding his success an ephemeral one. The old advice to the poet, in preparing the rich chariot of the Muse, still holds good:—
"Let the postillion, Nature, mount, but letThe coachman, Art, be set."
Too many of our recent rebellious bards fancy that the[Pg 267] coach will drive itself, if only the post-boy sticks his heels hard into Pegasus.
It is not, however, the object of this essay to review all the poetry which was written about the war, nor even that part of it which owed its existence to the strong feeling of non-combatants at home. I propose to fix our attention on what was written by the young soldiers themselves in their beautiful gallantry, verse which comes to us hallowed by the glorious effort of battle, and in too many poignant cases by the ultimate sacrifice of life itself. The poet achieves his highest meed of contemporary glory, if
"some brave young man's untimely fateIn words worth, dying for he celebrate,"
and when he is himself a young man striving for the same deathless honour on the same field of blood it is difficult to conceive of circumstances more poignant than those which surround his effort. On many of these poets a death of the highest nobility set the seal of eternal life. They were simple and passionate, radiant and calm, they fought for their country, and they have entered into glory. This alone might be enough to say in their praise, but star differeth from star in brightness, and from the constellation I propose to select half a dozen of the clearest luminaries. What is said in honest praise of these may be said, with due modification, of many others who miss merely the polish of their accomplishment. It is perhaps worth noticing, in passing, that most of the poets are men of university training, and that certain literary strains are common to the rank and file of them. The influence of Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne, and Rossetti is almost entirely absent. The only one of the great Victorians whom they seem to have read is Matthew Arnold, but it is impossible to help observing that the Shropshire Lad[Pg 268] of Mr. A.E. Housman was in the tunic-pocket of every one of them. Among the English poets of the past, it is mainly the so-called "metaphysical" writers in the seventeenth century whom they studied; Donne seems to have been a favourite with them all, and Vaughan and Treherne were not far behind.
The spontaneous instinct of readers has taken the name of Rupert Brooke to illustrate the poetic spirit of the great war in a superlative degree. His posthumous volume, brought out in May 1915, a few weeks after his death, has enjoyed a success which is greater, perhaps, than that of all the other poems of the war put together. He has become a sort of symbol, even a sort of fetish, and he is to English sentiment what Charles Péguy is to France, an oriflamme of the chivalry of his country. It is curious, in this connection, that neither Péguy nor Brooke had the opportunity of fighting much in the cause; they fell, as it seemed for the moment, obscurely. Rupert Brooke was a pawn in the dark and dolorous flight from Antwerp. He died in the Ægean, between Egypt and Gallipoli, having never seen a Turkish enemy. So Péguy faded out of sight on the very opening day of the battle of the Marne, yet each of these young men was immediately perceived to have embodied the gallantry of his country. The extraordinary popularity of Rupert Brooke is due to the excellence of his verse, to the tact with which it was presented to the public, but also to a vague perception of his representative nature. He was the finest specimen of a certain type produced at the universities, and then sacrificed to our national necessity.
It is needless to describe the verses of Rupert Brooke, which have attained a circulation which any poet might envy. They are comprised in two slender volumes, that above mentioned, and one of 1911, published while he was still at Cambridge. He was born in 1887, and when[Pg 269] he died off Skyros, in circumstances of the most romantic pathos, he had not completed his twenty-eighth year. He was, unlike the majority of his contemporaries, a meticulous and reserved writer, little inclined to be pleased with his work, and cautious to avoid the snare of improvisation. Hence, though he lived to be older than did Keats or Fergusson, he left a very slender garland of verse behind him, in which there is scarcely a petal which is not of some permanent value. For instance, in the volume of 1911 we found not a few pieces which then seemed crude in taste and petulant in temper; but even these now illustrate a most interesting character of which time has rounded the angles, and we would not have otherwise what illustrates so luminously—and so divertingly—that precious object, the mind of Rupert Brooke.
Yet there is a danger that this mind and character may be misinterpreted, even by those who contemplate the poet's memory with idolatry. There is some evidence of a Rupert Brooke legend in the process of formation, which deserves to be guarded against not less jealously than the R.L. Stevenson legend of a few years ago. We know that for some people gold and lilies are not properly honoured until they are gilded and painted. Rupert Brooke was far from being either a plaster saint or a vivid public witness. He was neither a trumpet nor a torch. He lives in the memory of those who knew him as a smiling and attentive spectator, eager to watch every flourish of the pageantry of life. Existence was a wonderful harmony to Rupert Brooke, who was determined to lose no tone of it by making too much noise himself. In company he was not a great talker, but loved to listen, with sparkling deference, to people less gifted than himself if only they had experience to impart. He lived in a fascinated state, bewitched with wonder and appreciation. His very fine appearance, which seemed to glow with dormant vitality,[Pg 270] his beautiful manners, the quickness of his intelligence, his humour, were combined under the spell of a curious magnetism, difficult to analyse. When he entered a room, he seemed to bring sunshine with him, although he was usually rather silent, and pointedly immobile. I do not think it would be easy to recollect any utterance of his which was very remarkable, but all he said and did added to the harmonious, ardent, and simple effect.
There is very little of the poetry of Rupert Brooke which can be definitely identified with the war. The last six months of his life, spent in conditions for which nothing in his previous existence in Cambridge or Berlin, in Grantchester or Tahiti, had in the least prepared him, were devoted—for we must not say wasted—to breaking up the cliché of civilised habits. But of this harassed time there remain to us the five immortal Sonnets, which form the crown of Rupert Brooke's verse, and his principal legacy to English literature. Our record would be imperfect without the citation of one, perhaps the least hackneyed of these:—
"Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!There's none of these so lonely and poor of old,But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.These laid the world away; poured out the redSweet wine of youth; gave up the years to beOf work and joy, and that unhoped serene,That men call age; and those who would have been,Their sons, they gave, their immortality.
"Blow, bugles, blow! They brought us, for our dearth,Holiness, lacked so long, and Love and Pain.Honour has come back, as a king, to earth,And paid his subjects with a royal wage;And Nobleness walks in our ways again;And we have come into our heritage."
If the fortune of his country had not disturbed his plans, it is more than probable that Rupert Brooke would have become an enlightened and enthusiastic professor. Of the[Pg 271] poet who detains us next it may be said that there was hardly any walk of life, except precisely this, which he could not have adorned. Julian Grenfell, who was a poet almost by accident, resembled the most enlightened of the young Italian noblemen of the Renaissance, who gave themselves with violence to a surfeit of knowledge and a riot of action. He was a humanist of the type of the fifteenth century, soldier, scholar, and man of pleasure, such as we read of in Vespasiano's famous book. Everything he did was done in the service of St. Epicurus, it was done to darsi buon tempo, as the Tuscans used to say. But this was only the superficial direction taken by his energy; if he was imperious in his pleasures, he was earnest in his pursuit of learning; there was a singular harmony in the exercise of the physical, intellectual, and emotional faculties at his disposal. Julian Grenfell was a master of the body and of the mind, an unrivalled boxer, a pertinacious hunter, skilled in swimming and polo, a splendid shot, a swift runner, and an unwearying student. That an athlete so accomplished should have had time left for intellectual endowments is amazing, but his natural pugnacity led him to fight lexicons as he fought the wild boar, and with as complete success.
The record of the brief and shining life of Julian Grenfell has been told in an anonymous record of family life which is destined to reverberate far beyond the discreet circle of friends to which it is provisionally addressed. It is a document of extraordinary candour, tact, and fidelity, and it is difficult to say whether humour or courage is the quality which illuminates it most. It will be referred to by future historians of our race as the most vivid record which has been preserved of the red-blooded activity of a spirited patrician family at the opening of the twentieth century. It is partly through his place at the centre of this record that, as one of the most gifted of his elder friends has said,[Pg 272] the name of Julian Grenfell will be linked "with all that is swift and chivalrous, lovely and courageous," but it is also through his rare and careless verses.
Julian Grenfell, who was born to excel with an enviable ease, was not a poet by determination. In a family where everything has been preserved, no verses of his that are not the merest boyish exercises are known to exist previous to the war. He was born in 1888, and he became a professional soldier in India in 1911. He was on his way home from South Africa when hostilities broke out, and he was already fighting in Flanders in October 1914. After a very brilliant campaign, in the course of which he won the D.S.O. and was twice mentioned in despatches, he was shot in the head near Ypres and died of his wounds at Boulogne on May 26th, 1915. During these months in France, by the testimony of all who saw him and of all to whom he wrote, his character received its final touch of ripeness. Among his other attainments he abruptly discovered the gift of noble gnomic verse. On receiving news of the death of Rupert Brooke, and a month before his own death, Julian Grenfell wrote the verses called "Into Battle," which contain the unforgettable stanzas:—
"The fighting man shall from the sunTake warmth, and life from the glowing earth;Speed with the light-foot winds to run,And with the trees to newer birth....
"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 ridge's 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.'"
[Pg 273]The whole of this poem is memorable, down to its final prophetic quatrain:—
"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."
"Could any other man in the British Army have knocked out a heavy-weight champion one week and written that poem the next?" a brother officer asked. "Into Battle" remains, and will probably continue to remain, the clearest lyrical expression of the fighting spirit of England in which the war has found words. It is a poem for soldiers, and it gives noble form to their most splendid aspirations. Julian Grenfell wrote, as he boxed and rode, as he fought in the mud of Flanders, as the ideal sporting Englishman of our old, heroic type.
The ancient mystery of verse is so deeply based on tradition that it is not surprising that all the strange contrivances of twentieth-century warfare have been found too crabbed for our poets to use. When great Marlborough, as Addison puts it, "examin'd all the dreadful scenes of war" at Blenheim, he was really in closer touch with Marathon than with the tanks and gas of Ypres. But there is one military implement so beautiful in itself, and so magical in the nature of its service, that it is bound to conquer a place in poetry. The air-machine, to quote The Campaign once more, "rides in the whirlwind and directs the storm." But the poets are still shy of it. In French it has, as yet, inspired but one good poem, the "Plus haut toujours!" of Jean Allard-Méeus, a hymn of real aerial majesty. In English Major Maurice Baring's ode "In Memoriam: A.H." is equally unique, and, in its complete diversity from Allard-Méeus' rhapsody, suggests that the aeroplane has a wide field before it in the[Pg 274] realms of imaginative writing. Major Baring's subject is the death of Auberon Herbert, Lord Lucas, who was killed on November 3rd, 1916. This distinguished young statesman and soldier had just been promoted, after a career of prolonged gallantry in the air, and would have flown no more, if he had returned in safety to our front on that fatal day.
Major Baring has long been known as an excellent composer of sonnets and other short pieces. But "In Memoriam: A.H." lifts him to a position among our living poets to which he had hardly a pretension. In a long irregular threnody or funeral ode, the great technical difficulty is to support lyrical emotion throughout. No form of verse is more liable to lapses of dignity, to dull and flagging passages. Even Dryden in Anne Killigrew, even Coleridge in theDeparting Year, have not been able to avoid those languors. Many poets attempt to escape them by a use of swollen and pompous language. I will not say that Major Baring has been universally successful, where the success of the great masters is only relative, but he has produced a poem of great beauty and originality, which interprets an emotion and illustrates an incident the poignancy of which could scarcely be exaggerated. I have no hesitation in asserting that "A.H." is one of the few durable contributions to the literature of the present war.
It is difficult to quote effectively from a poem which is constructed with great care on a complicated plan, but a fragment of Major Baring's elegy may lead readers to the original:—
"God, Who had made you valiant, strong and swiftAnd maimed you with a bullet long ago,And cleft your riotous ardour with a rift,And checked your youth's tumultuous overflow,Gave back your youth to you,And packed in moments rare and few[Pg 275]Achievements manifoldAnd happiness untold,And bade you spring to Death as to a bride,In manhood's ripeness, power and pride,And on your sandals the strong wings of youth."
There is no rhetoric here, no empty piling up of fine words; it is a closely followed study in poetical biography.
The water has its marvels like the air, but they also have hardly yet secured the attention of the poets. In A Naval Motley, by Lieut. N.M.F. Corbett, published in June 1916, we encounter the submarine:—
"Not yours to know delightIn the keen hard-fought fight,The shock of battle and the battle's thunder;But suddenly to feelDeep, deep beneath the keelThe vital blow that rives the ship asunder!"
A section of the new war-poetry which is particularly pathetic is that which is inspired by the nostalgia of home, by the longing in the midst of the guns and the dust and the lice for the silent woodlands and cool waters of England. When this is combined with the sense of extreme youth, and of a certain brave and beautiful innocence, the poignancy of it is almost more than can be borne. The judgment is hampered, and one doubts whether one's critical feeling can be trusted. This particular species of emotion is awakened by no volume more than by the slender Worple Flit of E. Wyndham Tennant, who died on the Somme in September 1916. He was only nineteen when he fell, at an age when, on the one hand, more precocious verse than his has been written, and when yet, on the other, some of the greatest poets had not achieved a mastery of words equal to that already possessed by this young Wykehamist. The voice is faltering, and there is a want of sureness in the touch; the metrical hammer does not[Pg 276] always tap the centre of the nail's head. But what pathos in the sentiment, what tenderness in the devotion to beauty! Tennant had, we may suppose, read Flecker before he wrote "How shall I tell you of the roads that stretch away?"; or was it merely the family likeness in the generation? But I know not what but his own genius can have inspired the "Home Thoughts in Laventie," a poem about a little garden left unravished among the rubble of the wrecked village, a poem which ends thus:—
"I saw green banks of daffodil,Slim poplars in the breeze,Great tan-brown hares in gusty MarchA-courting on the leas.And meadows, with their glittering streams—and silver-scurrying dace—Home, what a perfect place."
Among these boy-poets, so cruelly and prematurely snatched from the paternal earth, Tennant suggests to us the possibility that a talent of very high order was quenched by death, because in few of them do we find so much evidence of that "perception and awe of Beauty" which Plotinus held to be the upward path to God.
In June 1917 there was published a slender volume which is in several ways the most puzzling and the most interesting of all that lie upon my table to-day. This is the Ardours and Endurances of Lieut. Robert Nichols. I knew nothing of the author save what I learned from his writings, that he is very young, that he went out from Oxford early in the war, that he was fighting in Flanders before the end of 1914, that he was wounded, perhaps at Loos, in 1915, and that he was long in hospital. I felt the hope, which later information has confirmed, that he was still alive and on the road to recovery. Before Ardours and[Pg 277]Endurances reached me, I had met with Invocation, a smaller volume published by Lieut. Nichols in December 1915. There has rarely been a more radical change in the character of an artist than is displayed by a comparison of these two collections. Invocation, in which the war takes a small and unconvincing place, is creditable, though rather uncertain, in workmanship, and displays a tendency towards experiment in rich fancy and vague ornament. In Ardours and Endurances the same accents are scarcely to be detected; the pleasant boy has grown into a warworn man; while the mastery over the material of poetic art has become so remarkable as to make the epithet "promising" otiose. There is no "promise" here; there is high performance.
Alone among the poets before me, Lieut. Nichols has set down a reasoned sequence of war impressions. The opening Third of his book, and by far its most interesting section, consists of a cycle of pieces in which the personal experience of fighting is minutely reported, stage by stage. We have "The Summons," the reluctant but unhesitating answer to the call in England, the break-up of plans; then the farewell to home, "the place of comfort." "The Approach," in three successive lyrics, describes the arrival at the Front. "Battle," in eleven sections, reproduces the mental and physical phenomena of the attack. "The Dead," in four instalments, tells the tale of grief. "The Aftermath," with extraordinary skill, records in eight stages the gradual recovery of nerve-power after the shattering emotions of the right. The first section of "Battle," as being shorter than the rest, may be quoted in full as an example of Lieut. Nichols's method:—
"It is mid-day: the deep trench glares—A buzz and blaze of flies—The hot wind puffs the giddy airs,The great sun rakes the skies,
[Pg 278]"No sound in all the stagnant trenchWhere forty standing menEndure the sweat and grit and stench,Like cattle in a pen.
"Sometimes a sniper's bullet whirsOr twangs the whining wire;Sometimes a soldier sighs and stirsAs in hell's forging fire.
"From out a high cool cloud descendsAn aeroplane's far moan;The sun strikes down, the thin cloud rends,The black speck travels on.
"And sweating, dizzied, isolateIn the hot trench beneath,We bide the next shrewd move of fateBe it of life or death."
This is painfully vivid, but it is far exceeded in poignancy by what follows. Indeed it would be difficult to find in all literature, from the wail of David over Jonathan downward, such an expression of the hopeless longing for an irrecoverable presence as informs the broken melodies, the stanzas which are like sobs, of the fifth section of Ardours and Endurances:—
"In a far field, away from England, liesA Boy I friended with a care like love;All day the wide earth aches, the cold wind cries,The melancholy clouds drive on above.
"There, separate from him by a little span,Two eagle cousins, generous, reckless, free,Two Grenfells, lie, and my Boy is made man,One with these elder knights of chivalry."
It is difficult to qualify, it seems almost indelicate to intrude upon, such passionate grief. These poems form a revelation of the agony of a spirit of superabundant refinement and native sensuousness suddenly stunned, and as it were momentarily petrified, by horrible spiritual anguish. If the strain were not relieved by the final numbers of "Aftermath," where the pain of the soul is abated, and where the poet, scarred and shattered, but "free at last,"[Pg 279] snaps the chain of despair, these poems would be positively intolerable.
In the closeness of his analysis and in the accurate heaping up of exact and pregnant observations, Lieut. Nichols comes closer than any other of these English poets to the best of the French paladins, of whom I wrote in Three French Moralists. One peculiarity which he shares with them is his seriousness: there is no trace in him of the English cheerfulness and levity. Most of our war-writers are incorrigible Mark Tapleys. But Lieut. Nichols, even when he uses colloquial phrases—and he introduces them with great effect—never smiles. He is most unlike the French, on the other hand, in his general attitude towards the war. He has no military enthusiasm, no aspiration after gloire. Indeed, the most curious feature of his poetry is that its range is concentrated on the few yards about the trench in which he stands. He seems to have no national view of the purpose of the war, no enthusiasm for the cause, no anger against the enemy. There is but a single mention of the Germans from beginning to end; the poet does not seem to know of their existence. His experiences, his agonies, his despair, are what a purely natural phenomenon, such as the eruption of a volcano or the chaos of an earthquake, might cause. We might read his poems over and over again without forming the slightest idea of what all the distress was about, or who was guilty, or what was being defended. This is a mark of great artistic sincerity; but it also points to a certain moral narrowness. Lieut. Robert Nichols' "endurances" are magnificently described, but we are left in the dark regarding his "ardours." We are sure of one thing, however, that none of us may guess what such a talent, in one still so young, may have in store for us; and we may hope for broader views expressed in no less burning accents.
There could hardly be a more vivid contrast than exists[Pg 280] between the melancholy passion of Lieut. Nichols and the fantastic high spirits of Captain Robert Graves. He again is evidently a very young man, who was but yester-year a jolly boy at the Charterhouse. He has always meant to be a poet; he is not one of those who have been driven into verse by the strenuous emotion of the war. In some diverting prefatory lines to Over the Brazier he gives us a picture of the nursery-scene when a bright green-covered book bewitched him by its "metre twisting like a chain of daisies, with great big splendid words." He has still a wholesome hunger for splendid words; he has kept more deliberately than most of his compeers a poetical vocation steadily before him. He has his moments of dejection when the first battle faces him:—
"Here's an end to my art!I must die and I know it,With battle-murder at my heart—Sad death, for a poet!
"Oh, my songs never sung,And my plays to darkness blown!I am still so young, so young,And life was my own."
But this mood soon passes, and is merged in the humoristic and fantastic elation characteristic of this buoyant writer, whose whim it is to meet the tragedy not mournfully but boisterously. Where by most of the soldier-bards the subjective manner is a little over-done, it is impossible not to welcome so objective a writer as Captain Graves, from whose observations of the battle of La Bassée I quote an episode:—
THE DEAD FOX HUNTER
"We found the little captain at the head;His men lay well aligned.We touched his hand, stone-cold, and he was dead,And they, all dead behind,Had never reached their goal, but they died well;They charged in line, and in the same line fell.
[Pg 281]"The well-known rosy colours of his faceWere almost lost in grey.We saw that, dying and in hopeless case,For others' sake that dayHe'd smothered all rebellious groans: in deathHis fingers were tight clenched between his teeth.
"For those who live uprightly and die trueHeaven has no bars or locks,And serves all taste.... Or what's for him to doUp there, but hunt the fox?Angelic choirs? No, Justice must provideFor one who rode straight and at hunting died.
"So if Heaven had no Hunt before he came,Why, it must find one now:If any shirk and doubt they know the game,There's one to teach them how:And the whole host of Seraphim completeMust jog in scarlet to his opening Meet."
I have a notion that this is a gallant poem which Englishmen will not allow to be forgotten. The great quality of Captain Graves' verse at present is its elated vivacity, which neither fire, nor pain, nor grief can long subdue. Acutely sensitive to all these depressing elements, his animal spirits lift him like an aeroplane, and he is above us in a moment, soaring through clouds of nonsense under a sky of unruffled gaiety. In our old literature, of which he is plainly a student, he has found a neglected author who is wholly to his taste. This is Skelton, Henry VIII's Rabelaisian laureate. Captain Graves imitates, with a great deal of bravado, those breathless absurdities, The Tunning of Elinore Rummyng and Colin Clout. He likes rough metre, bad rhymes and squalid images: we suspect him of an inclination to be rude to his immediate predecessors. But his extreme modernness—"Life is a cliché—I would find a gesture of my own"—is, in the case of so lively a songster, an evidence of vitality. He promises a new volume, to be called Fairies and Fusiliers, and it will be looked forward to with anticipation.[Pg 282]
All these poets seem to be drawn into relation to one another. Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon are both Fusiliers, and they publish a στιχομυθ?α "on Nonsense," just as Cowley and Crashaw did "on Hope" two centuries and a half ago. Lieut. Sassoon's own volume is later than those which we have hitherto examined, and bears a somewhat different character. The gallantry of 1915 and the optimism of 1916 have passed away, and in Lieut. Sassoon's poems their place is taken by a sense of intolerable weariness and impatience: "How long, O Lord, how long?" The name-piece of the volume, and perhaps its first in execution, is a monologue by an ignorant and shrewd old huntsman, who looks back over his life with philosophy and regret. Like Captain Graves, he is haunted with the idea that there must be fox-hounds in Heaven. All Lieut. Sassoon's poems about horses and hunting and country life generally betray his tastes and habits. This particular poem hardly touches on the war, but those which follow are absorbed by the ugliness, lassitude, and horror of fighting. Lieut. Sassoon's verse has not yet secured the quality of perfection; he is not sufficiently alive to the importance of always hitting upon the best and only word. He is essentially a satirist, and sometimes a very bold one, as in "The Hero," where the death of a soldier is announced home in "gallant lies," so that his mother brags to her neighbours of the courage of her dead son. At the close of all this pious make-believe, the Colonel
"thought how 'Jack,' cold-footed, useless swine,Had panicked down the trench that night the mineWent up at Wicked Corner; how he'd triedTo get sent home; and how, at last, he died,Blown to small bits";
or, again, as in "Blighters," where the sentimentality of London is contrasted with the reality in Flanders:[Pg 283]
"The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grinAnd cackle at the Show, while prancing ranksOf harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din,'We're sure the Kaiser loves the dear old Tanks!
"I'd like to see a Tank come down the stalls,Lurching to rag-time tunes, or 'Home, sweet Home!'—And there'd be no more jokes in Music-hallsTo mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume."
It is this note of bitter anger, miles away from the serenity of Rupert Brooke, the lion-heart of Julian Grenfell, the mournful passion of Robert Nichols, which differentiates Lieut. Sassoon from his fellows. They accept the war, with gallantry or with resignation; he detests it with wrathful impatience. He has much to learn as an artist, for his diction is often hard, and he does not always remember that Horace, "when he writ on vulgar subjects, yet writ not vulgarly." But he has force, sincerity, and a line of his own in thought and fancy. A considerable section of his poetry is occupied with studies of men he has observed at the Front, a subaltern, a private of the Lancashires, conscripts, the dross of a battle-field, the one-legged man ("Thank God, they had to amputate!"), the sniper who goes crazy—savage, disconcerting silhouettes drawn roughly against a lurid background.
The bitterness of Lieut. Sassoon is not cynical, it is the rage of disenchantment, the violence of a young man eager to pursue other aims, who, finding the age out of joint, resents being called upon to help to mend it. His temper is not altogether to be applauded, for such sentiments must tend to relax the effort of the struggle, yet they can hardly be reproved when conducted with so much honesty and courage. Lieut. Sassoon, who, as we learn, has twice been severely wounded and has been in the very furnace of the fighting, has reflected, more perhaps than his fellow-singers, about the causes and conditions of the war. He may not always have thought correctly, nor have recorded[Pg 284] his impressions with proper circumspection, but his honesty must be respectfully acknowledged.
I have now called attention to those soldier-writers of verse who, in my judgment, expressed themselves with most originality during the war. There is a temptation to continue the inquiry, and to expatiate on others of only less merit and promise. Much could be said of Charles Hamilton Sorley, who gave evidence of precocious literary talent, though less, I think, in verse, since the unmistakable singing faculty is absent in Marlborough (Cambridge University Press, 1916), than in prose, a form in which he already excelled. Sorley must have shown military gifts as well as a fine courage, for when he was killed in action in October 1915, although he was but twenty years of age, he had been promoted captain. In the universal sorrow, few figures awaken more regret, than his. Something, too, had I space, should be said about the minstrels who have been less concerned with the delicacies of workmanship than with stirring the pulses of their auditors. In this kind of lyric "A Leaping Wind from England" will long keep fresh the name of W.N. Hodgson, who was killed in the battle of the Somme. His verses were collected in November 1916. The strange rough drum-taps of Mr. Henry Lawson, published in Sydney at the close of 1915, and those of Mr. Lawrence Rentoul, testify to Australian enthusiasm. Most of the soldier-poets were quite youthful; an exception was R.E. Vernède, whose War Poems (W. Heinemann, 1917) show the vigour of moral experience. He was killed in the attack on Harrincourt, in April 1917, having nearly closed his forty-second year. To pursue the list would only be to make my omissions more invidious.
There can be no healthy criticism where the principle of selection is neglected, and I regret that patriotism or indulgence has tempted so many of those who have spoken of[Pg 285] the war-poets of the day to plaster them with indiscriminate praise. I have here mentioned a few, in whose honour even a little excess of laudation may not be out of place. But these are the exceptions, in a mass of standardised poetry made to pattern, loosely versified, respectable in sentiment, uniformly meditative, and entirely without individual character. The reviewers who applaud all these ephemeral efforts with a like acclaim, and who say that there are hundreds of poets now writing who equal if they do not excel the great masters of the past, talk nonsense; they talk nonsense, and they know it. They lavish their flatteries in order to widen the circle of their audience. They are like the prophets of Samaria, who declared good unto the King of Israel with one mouth; and we need a Micaiah to clear the scene of all such flatulent Zedekiahs. It is not true that the poets of the youngest generation are a myriad Shelleys and Burnses and Bérangers rolled into one. But it is true that they carry on the great tradition of poetry with enthusiasm, and a few of them with high accomplishment.