In 1923, the American editor of Poetry magazine wrote of a trip to London and her encounter with one of the best-known poets of the First World War at that time:
A big fellow is Aldington, looking more like a football-player than a poet—one’s imagination has to leap to connect him with the delicate handwriting so long familiar, and the even more delicate poems. We lunched at the Cheshire Cheese, still haunted by Dr. Johnson’s bellowing voice, and explored St. Paul’s and the Temple through persistent rain, talking meanwhile of ten years of war and poetry.*
Just four years earlier, Aldington had published his second book of poetry, a volume that recounted his experiences of battle on the Western Front. Images of War was illustrated by war artist Paul Nash. Aldington’s “In the Trenches” appeared in that volume.
In the Trenches
Not that we are weary,
Not that we fear,
Not that we are lonely
Though never alone—
Not these, not these destroy us;
But that each rush and crash
Of mortar and shell,
Each cruel bitter shriek of bullet
That tears the wind like a blade,
Each wound on the breast of earth,
Of Demeter, our Mother,
Wounds us also,
Severs and rends the fine fabric
Of the wings of our frail souls,
Scatters into dust the bright wings
How impotent is all this clamour,
This destruction and contest…
Night after night comes the moon
Haughty and perfect;
Night after night the Pleiades sing
And Orion swings his belt across the sky.
Night after night the frost
Crumbles the hard earth.
Soon the spring will drop flowers
And patient, creeping stalk and leaf
Along these barren lines
Where the huge rats scuttle
And the hawk shrieks to the carrion crow.
Can you stay them with your noise?
Then kill winter with your cannon,
Hold back Orion with your bayonets
And crush the spring leaf with your armies!
Frail souls, the impotent din of the shells, and the haughty, knowing gaze of a moon that shines down upon the barrenness of battle—Aldington contrasts the chaotic noise of war with the stolid endurance and quietude of nature. The poem rhetorically asks if even the fiercest bombardment of the war can silence the rats, hawks, and carrion crows that shriek across the lines of battle. Despite the terrific destructive power of industrial war, humans will never be capable of killing winter, corralling the stars, or crushing the spring.
Together with his wife HD (Hilda Doolittle), Aldington was a leader of the Imagist movement, writers who crafted short poems that used concrete language and formal elements to suggest a moment in time, a mood, an experience. Josie Holford’s blog post “Richard Aldington and Paul Nash: Images of War” includes a rich discussion of the volume and its images, and Vivian Whelpton’s biography Richard Aldington: Poet, Soldier and Lover 1911 – 1929 (Lutterworth Press, 2014) attempts to unravel the complexities of Aldington’s life. As the author of A Century Back writes, “Richard Aldington is neither my favorite writer nor an altogether terrific soldier/husband/human being (and yes, those two judgments shouldn’t influence each other, yet they do), but his poetry is… interesting.”**
* Harriet Monroe, “The Editor in England,” Poetry, vol. 23, no. 1, October 1923, pp. 32–45.
** “Richard Aldington’s Prayers and Fantasies,” A Century Back, 1 Nov. 2018, https://www.acenturyback.com/2018/11/01/richard-aldingtons-prayers-and-fantasies-rowland-feilding-in-the-chateau-sapper-martin-suspects-the-flags/.