Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Stronger than death

Arthur T. Greg
Love is stronger than death” reads the epitaph on the headstone of Captain Arthur Tylston Greg, buried at Jussy Communal cemetery in France. Shortly after war was declared in August of 1914, Arthur Greg left his law studies at Oxford and eagerly joined the British army. Serving with the Cheshire Regiment near Ypres, Belgium, he was seriously wounded when shot in the jaw in the spring of 1915. 

Recovering from his injuries, Greg rejoined the military and applied to the Royal Flying Corps. By April of 1917, he had been certified as a pilot and returned to France to join the 55 Squadron.  Less than one month later, on April 23rd of 1917, returning from a bombing mission on an ammunition factory, Arthur Greg’s squadron was attacked by German aircraft.  Among the German pilots was Herman Goering, the WWI ace who would survive to lead the Nazi Party and found the Gestapo in WWII.  Greg’s plane was shot down, and although he crash-landed near St. Quentin, both he and his mechanic died of their wounds.

In 1918, Arthur’s sweetheart, Marian Allen, published a slim book of poetry, The Wind on the Downs. The poems chronicle Marian’s grief; “Out in a gale of fallen leaves” was written six months after Greg’s death. 

Out in a gale of fallen leaves,
Where the wind blows clear through the rain-soaked trees,
Where the sky is torn betwixt cloud and blue
And the rain but ceases to fall anew:
And dead leaves, in bud on your April flight,
Will whisper your name to the wind to-night
And the year is dying in which you died
And I shall be lonely this Christmas-tide.
            Hyde Park, October
Wind howls in an October gale, dead leaves scrape across the ground, and rain drums down in a London park, yet in the sounds of an autumn storm, the speaker of the poem hears only the whisper of her dead lover’s name. The sight of the drifting leaves is a poignant reminder that just a short time ago when spring buds on the trees heralded new growth, the young airman too was alive and full of promise. Now, like the leaves, he also has fallen from the torn sky. 

In another poem from Wind on the Downs, Marian Allen remembers Arthur Greg and their happy past as she struggles to reconcile memory with the future that lies before her:

I like to think of you as brown and tall,
As strong and living as you used to be,
In khaki tunic, Sam-Brown belt and all,
And standing there and laughing down at me.
Because they tell me, dear, that you are dead.

Shared laughter has been replaced by an echoing silence, and her memories are shadowed by his loss. Recalling their war-time farewell in another poem, Allen writes, “His footsteps echoed down the path to die.” As autumn deepens and gives way to the bleakness of winter, there is some comfort in knowing that the year in which Arthur Greg died is also ending. And yet she starkly acknowledges the emptiness that stretches before her: “And I shall be lonely this Christmas-tide.”  In the final verse of her poem “And what is war?” Allen answers the question for many grief-stricken women:

The sound of laughing voices disappearing,
The marching of a thousand eager feet,
Passing, ever passing out of hearing,
Echoing, ever echoing down the street;
A sudden gust of wind, a clanging door,
And then a lasting silence—that is war.

Marian Allen went on to write and illustrate several books for children; she returned to Oxford where she died in 1953.  She never married. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The first fellowship

In the summer of 1916, a young lieutenant on the Western Front learned that one of his closest friends had died on the first day of the Somme.  He wrote, “Something has gone crack…. I don’t feel a member of a little complete body now…I feel a mere individual.”[i]

The officer was J.R.R. Tolkien, and his grief and sense of dislocation was prompted by the death of Robert Gilson.  Tolkien and Gilson, together with Christopher Wiseman and Geoffrey Bache Smith, had formed Tolkien’s “first fellowship.” [ii] The four were schoolmates at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, and beginning in 1911, the boys met regularly in the school’s library and at Barrow’s, the tea shop of a local department store. Calling themselves the TCSB (Tea Club and Barrovian Society), the friends discussed their ambitions for shaping a better world through literature and art.

The Great War interrupted their plans, and all four enlisted in military service: Wiseman in the Navy, and Tolkien, Gilson, and Smith with the British Army.  Only Wiseman and Tolkien would survive the war.

Geoffrey Bache Smith was also devastated to learn of his friend’s death. His poem “Let us tell quiet stories of kind eyes” mourns the loss of Gilson while asserting that friendship itself can never die.  

Let us tell quiet stories of kind eyes
And placid brows where peace and learning sate;
Of misty gardens under evening skies
Solitude, Percy Smith
Where four would walk of old, with steps sedate.

Let's have no word of all the sweat and blood.
Of all the noise and strife and dust and smoke
(We who have seen Death surging like a flood,
Wave upon wave, that leaped and raced and broke).

Or let's sit silently, we three together,
Around a wide hearth-fire that's glowing red,
Giving no thought to all the stormy weather
That flies above the roof-tree overhead.

And he, the fourth, that lies all silently
In some far-distant and untended grave,
Under the shadow of a shattered tree,
Shall leave the company of the hapless brave,

And draw nigh unto us for memory's sake,
Because a look, a word, a deed, a friend,
Are bound with cords that never a man may break,
Unto his heart for ever, until the end."

Steeped in melancholy and nostalgia, the poem offers a lament not only for a lost friend, but for a lost world.  Recalling misty gardens under evening skies, the poem recreates a tranquil world of dim twilight. Innocent school days before the war are so far removed from the mud and gore of the trenches that they appear veiled by mist, impossibly distant. 

In memory, four men on the brink of adulthood sedately walk abreast.  Their gathering is not regimented, nor do they march ahead.  Instead, in the remembered days “of old,” they saunter together, loose and easy in the freedom of friendship and leisure.

The poem attempts, no matter how briefly, to deny the present reality.  It begs for the mercy of oblivion as it attempts to block out the surrounding sweat, blood, noise, and grime. The poet knows that Death is a ravaging flood that cannot be turned back -- it outraces and overwhelms all men in its path. And yet the poet asks for a temporary truce. For a moment in the midst of the war, Geoffrey Bache Smith pauses to imagine another world, a world far removed from the Western Front. 

In this world apart, the three surviving members of that first fellowship gather around the welcoming fire of a home or a library or a pub.  Finding comfort in one another’s company, they are immune to the turmoil that rages outside. And yet outside, “under the shadow of a shattered tree” one of their dearest friends, the fourth of their circle, lies “all silently/In some far-distant and untended grave.”

Avowing a bond stronger than death, Smith imagines his lost comrade leaving his grave and for a moment, deserting the company of the other unlucky, courageous dead of the war.  In this imagined world, the resurrected man draws near “for memory’s sake,” proof that the bonds of love and friendship can never be broken. 

“Let us tell quiet stories of kind eyes” is a poem of friendship, but its undertones echo the somber poetry of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes:
Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh…. because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets: Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.  Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it (Eccl 12:1, 5-7)

Six months after Gilson’s death, in early December of 1916, Geoffrey Bache Smith was struck by shrapnel from an exploding artillery shell.  Although his wounds were not initially thought serious (while waiting to be transported to the casualty clearing station, Smith smoked a cigarette and wrote a reassuring letter to his mother)[iii], gas gangrene set in, and two days later he died.

Almost a year before, anticipating a dangerous night patrol mission in early February of 1916, Smith had written to Tolkien about death and friendship:  
my chief consolation is, that if I am scuppered tonight there will still be left a great member of the TCBS to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. For the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the TCBS. Death is so close to us now that I feel - and I am sure that you feel, and all the three other heroes feel, how impuissant it is. Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four! ... Yes, publish... May God bless you, John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not here to say them, if such is my lot."

In 1918, JRR Tolkien wrote the preface to Smith’s posthumously published book of poetry, A Spring Harvest, and when he published The Hobbit in 1937, Tolkien sent copies to “some friends and relations, including…the mother of his dear friend Geoffrey Bache Smith, who had died in battle over twenty years before.”[iv]

Robert Quilter Gilson is buried at Becourt; Geoffrey Bache Smith lies at Warlincourt.

[i] Tolkien’s letter is quoted in John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War (2013), page 176.
[ii] John Garth, “Tolkien’s ‘immortal four’ meet for the last time” (25 September 2015).
[iii] John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War (2013), page 211.
[iv] Colin Duriez, JRR Tolkien: The Making of a a Legend (2012), page 159.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

A Soldier's Fall

The English Romantic poet John Keats described autumn as the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” but fall is more typically associated with melancholy and loss. Ernest Rhys, a Welsh poet of the First World War, compared the leaves of autumn to fallen soldiers of the war:  “small folk,/ faded, and fain/To give up their life” (“The Leaf Burners”). 

More intimately, American poet Wallace Stevens also likened the dead of the war to the season of autumn, but his poem “The Death of a Soldier” examines the loss of a single man.

The Death of a Soldier

Life contracts and death is expected,
As in a season of autumn.
The soldier falls.

He does not become a three-days’ personage,
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops.

When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.
            --Wallace Stevens

As natural as the change of the seasons is the death of a soldier; a man’s life narrows to a single focal point of duty and orders, and “death is expected.” Yet for the common infantry soldier (each of whom is not common at all to those who know and love him) death is accompanied by neither fame nor processions. His body does not lie in state; his photo does not appear in the newspaper with tales of his courage.  Instead, his name appears among hundreds of others, a small line of print in the casualty lists, and his body is hastily buried – if it can be found.

Despite this ordinary death, Stevens’ poem asks us to pause, to be still, and to honor the moment when one soldier falls, “As in a season of autumn,/When the wind stops.” Each fallen man is worthy of that moment of silence.

The highly condensed three-line verses remind us of a life over too soon, and the final line of each stanza is brief and blunt, mirroring the soldier’s abrupt end.  The clouds continue to pass across the sky; the army marches on without this one man, and those he loved and left must also soldier on, although their lives are the poorer for the loss.  The poem forces us to acknowledge that the death of a soldier in battle is nothing remarkable, but rather an expected event in the nature of war. 

Wallace Stevens is a key figure in the development of American modernist poetry, but his war poems have been largely forgotten.  Thirty-seven-years old when America entered the war, Stevens did not serve in the American Expeditionary Force, but continued to work as an insurance agent in Hartford, Connecticut. His poem “Death of a Soldier” was written from the home front nearly one-hundred years ago, and yet it still challenges readers today, asking us to consider the too-often underestimated human costs of war.