Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Lovely and absurd


Frances Cornford

How does one make sense of the death of a friend in war?  Frances Cornford shaped her pain into poetry. Cornford was the granddaughter of Charles Darwin and had written poems from a young age.  She was twenty-eight when war broke out in August of 1914 and twenty-nine when she received news of the death of her friend Ferenc Békássy.

A Hungarian scholar and poet who had entered Cambridge in 1911, Békássy left England and his Cambridge friends to join the Austro-Hungarian army soon after war was declared. In a letter dated May 1915, shortly before riding to the Eastern Front, Békássy wrote, Do you know I think there’s a difference between poets (who write poetry) and other people, that poets take hold of the feelings they have and won’t let go; and other people let feelings have their natural effects and so don’t write poems.”*

Frances Cornford’s poem "Féri Bekassy" was originally titled simply “Féri Dead 1915.”**

We, who must grow old and staid,
Full of wisdom, much afraid,
In our hearts like flowers keep
Love for you until we sleep.

You the brave, and you the young
You of a thousand songs unsung,
Burning brain, and ardent word,
You the lovely and absurd.

Say, on that Galician plain,
Are you arguing again?
Does a trench or ruined tree
Hear your – ‘O, I don’t agree!’

We, who must grow staid and old,
Full of caution, worn and cold,
In our hearts, like flowers keep
Your image, till we also sleep.

In the introduction to Cornford’s Selected Poems, Jane Dowson notes that readers may miss the depths of Cornford’s poetry as they “take the simplicity at face value and miss the undertow,” for nearly all of Cornford’s work is infused with a “sense of the impermanence of all human relationships” (xv-xvi). This poem is simple in its communication of loss and waste, the “thousand songs unsung,” but it touches upon more complex emotions in refusing to idolize the dead. It offers a gentle mockery of Békássy's incautious and ardent intensity and his penchant for philosophical argument. These were the lovely absurdities that made him a dear friend; he is remembered as a man and not as an idealized warrior.

In May of 1915, Békássy wrote what would be his last letter to Noel Olivier, a young woman he had courted: “I am going to the front in five days’ time, and am already feeling quite detached from everything so that nothing interests me very much and the only vivid remembrances are: people.... I’m going gladly, I know it’s very worth taking the risk, and I am sure to get something good out of the war unless I die in it. It’s part of “the good life” just now, that I should go: and the sooner one gives up the idea that the world can be made better than it is, the better. I daresay one can make it happier, but then happiness isn’t the main point, is it?”*

Békássy was killed in action four days after arriving at the Eastern Front on June 22, 1915.  His war poem “1914” can be read on an earlier post on this blog.

Frances Cornford's grave, Cambridge

* Letter excerpted from George Gömöri’s “Ferenc Békássy, Rupert Brooke, and Noel Olivier,” The Hungarian Quarterly, vol. 199, pp. 105-113.
**Originally published in Different Days (1928), the poem was slightly revised, and the version shared in this post is from Cornford’s Collected Poems (1954).


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