Sunday, August 29, 2021

Life weeps and shreds her garments

Harvard's First World War memorial 

In May of 1917, shortly after the United States declared war on Germany, French general Joseph Joffre visited America with his entourage. Joffre had served as France’s Commander-in-Chief on the Western Front from the start of the war until the end of 1916. He was well-known in America, remembered by his nickname, the “Rock of the Marne.” 

In the spring of 1917, Joffre’s mission was to ensure that American troops would be sent to the Western Front as quickly as possible, and that American military supplies would accompany the troops who would be trained by the French. Historian J.A. Almstrom writes, 

Because her own troops would tolerate no more offensives, France needed the Americans as surrogate soldiers for her generals’ strategic appetites. In order to survive, the French would attempt no less than to capture the soul of an army. As a result of the Joffre visit, and possibly encouraged by his insistence that trench warfare required little training, the War Department decided to dispatch to France a regular division.*

Along with an estimated 22,000 others, American writer Amy Lowell was present at Joffre’s visit to Harvard (her brother was the president of the university). Local newspapers describe the hero’s welcome that was given to Joffre: a chorus of over 1,000 school children sang “The Marseilles”; Boy Scouts accompanied the procession from Cambridge to Harvard; the President of Harvard, A. Lawrence Lowell, conferred upon Joffre the honorary degree of doctor of laws, and the university’s young recruits showed off their military bearing and discipline in an exhibition of marching and drills.**

Amy Lowell’s description of the event distances itself from the patriotic fervor that thrilled the crowds. Lowell's poem “In the Stadium” highlights the immense gap between parades and combat, between generals who command and young men who are sent to die, “Heaped like sandbags / Against the German guns.” 

In the Stadium
Marshall Joffre Reviewing The Harvard Regiment, May 12, 1917

A little old man
Huddled up in a corner of a carriage,
Rapidly driven in front of throngs of people
With his hand held to a perpetual salute.
The people cheer,
But he has heard so much cheering.
On his breast is a row of decorations.
He feels his body recoil before attacks of pain.

They are all like this:
Great Caesar even,
But that he died out of time.
Sick old men,
Driving rapidly before a concourse of people,
Gay with decorations,
Crumpled with pain.

The drum-major lifts his silver-headed stick,
And the silver trumpets and tubas,
The great round drums,
Each with an H on them,
Crash out martial music.
Heavily rhythmed march music
For the stepping of a regiment.

Parade to War, an Allegory
John S. Curry, Cummer Museum of Art 

Slant lines of rifles,
A twinkle of stepping,
The regiment comes.
The young regiment,
Boys in khaki
With slanted rifles.

The young bodies of boys
Bulwarked in front of us.
The white bodies of young men
Heaped like sandbags
Against the German guns.

This is war:
Boys flung into a breach
Like shoveled earth;
And old men,
Driving rapidly before crowds of people
In a glitter of silly decorations.

Behind the boys
And the old men,
Life weeps,
And shreds her garments
To the blowing winds.
—Amy Lowell 

Three-hundred and seventy-three Harvard students, alumni, faculty, and staff died in the war.  

Although she was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1926, Lowell’s writing is frequently overlooked by contemporary readers, and few know of her war poetry. In 1917, Amy Lowell wrote, “It is impossible for any one writing to-day not to be affected by the war. It has overwhelmed us like a tidal wave. It is the equinoctial storm which bounds a period.”*** What readers are more familiar with today are her contemporaries’ dismissive remarks that seem designed to counteract the creativity and influence of Lowell and her poetry: she was accused of appropriating Imagism and reformulating it as “Amygism”; T.S. Eliot denigrated her use of personal wealth to promote contemporary literature, calling her the “demon saleswoman” of modern poetry°; and the writer Witter Bynner sneered that she was a “hippopoetess,” an insult repeated and popularized by Ezra Pound. 

In the preface to her collection of literary essays Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917), Lowell writes of poets who go unrecognized: “Poets are always the advance guard of literature; the advance guard of life. It is for this reason that their recognition comes so slowly.”°°
* John Albin Almstrom, Learning to Live: Tactical Training for the AEF, 1917–1918, Master’s thesis, Rice U, 1972, p. 32.
** Cambridge Chronicle, 19 May 1917 and Harvard Crimson, 15 May 1917.
*** Amy Lowell, Tendencies in Modern American Poetry, 1917, Macmillan, p. v.
° T. S. Eliot, qtd in A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode by David Perkins,
°° Lowell, Tendencies, p. xi. 

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Let us forget

The Deluge (1920) by Winifred Knights
The Tate Museum, T05532

Over a century after the end of the First World War, “Lest We Forget” is an often-repeated phrase, urging that the tragedies of war be remembered in commemoration*. But during the war itself, both those on the fields of battle and on the home front often wrote of their deliberate efforts to forget. 

British soldier Ivor Gurney writes in “To His Love” “Cover him, cover him soon! / And with thick-set / Masses of memoried flowers— / Hide that red wet / Thing I must somehow forget,” while the last stanza of Rose Macaulay’s  “Picnic July 1917” describes civilians’ efforts to block thoughts of the conflict:   

Oh, we’ll lie quite still, not listen nor look,
While the earth’s bounds reel and shake,
Lest, battered too long, our walls and we
Should break … .should break….

Mental disassociation from the trauma of war was critical to emotional stability—dwelling on the realities of war could lead to madness.   

Less than one month before peace was declared, American writer Sara Teasdale composed a poem that she never published. “Autumn Night 1918,” dated September 13, 1918, is recorded in Teasdale’s notebooks, now part of the Sara Teasdale collection at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.**

Autumn Night 1918

Encounter in the Darkness (1919), Claggett Wilson
Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1981.163.5
Let us forget! The night smells fresh,
The park is quiet, the stars are white—
They are fighting, the youth of the world are dying—

Let us forget! Kiss me to-night,
It is autumn now the whole world over,
Run down this path with me, let us forget!
Over the sea they are dying—kiss me,
Never mind if my lashes are wet.

In the lamp-light see two scarlet branches!
What is that ghostly thing under the tree?
Only a wild white aster stirring
In a wind blown westward over the sea.

Listen, the wind is moaning in trouble,
It brings what dying soldiers say,
Crying out from the bloody stubble
To women three thousand miles away.
—Sara Teasdale

The speaker’s repetition of “let us forget” signals that this is impossible. Neither a lover’s kisses nor flight down a forested path can erase the news of the war and its millions of dead. Humans have destroyed their connection with the natural world, and the comforts of the pastoral are meaningless in the face of industrial war. Trees, flowers, and the wind itself offer only traitorous reminders of corpses, bloody fields, and dying men’s moans. 

“Autumn Night 1918” offers a fascinating contrast with Teasdale’s better-known poem “There Will Come Soft Rains.” In the latter, the natural world is indifferent to humans, not caring nor deigning to remember whether “mankind perished utterly.” Yet in “Autumn Night 1918,” while the natural world appears to conspire in reminding men and women of the costs of war, an underlying message of the poem suggests that although nature may forget the war, people are incapable of doing so, especially when this is what is most vehemently desired. 

Distance from the battlefield does not protect civilians from the consequences and horrors of the war, and survivors are never discharged from the duty of bearing the burden of loss. 
* "Lest We Forget" was first used in Rudyard Kipling's 1897 poem "Recessional."
** This post is deeply indebted to Melissa Girard’s research on Teasdale’s First World War poetry. Girard’s compelling scholarship deserves a much wider audience; her essay “‘How Autocratic Our Country Is Becoming’: The Sentimental Poetess at War” can be read online. It is drawn from her dissertation Lines of Feeling: Modernist Women’s Poetry and the Limits of Sentimentality (U of Illinois, 2009). 

Monday, August 2, 2021

Youth was in our hands

Rupert Brooke, 1913, by Sherril Schell
National Portrait Gallery NPG P101

In August of 1915, just months after Rupert Brooke’s death, his friend and literary executor Edward Marsh wrote a memoir, intending to publish it with Brooke’s collected poems. Marsh wrote that “Circumstances prevented this,” and Rupert Brooke: A Memoir wasn’t published until 1918. The delay allowed Marsh to include excerpts from Brooke’s letters. 

Aboard a troopship bound for Gallipoli, shortly before his death from “acute blood poisoning,”* Brooke wrote to his friend and fellow poet Lascelles Abercrombie:

I know now what a campaign is .... It is continual crossing from one place to another, and back, over dreamlike seas: anchoring, or halting, in the oddest places, for no one knows or quite cares how long: drifting on, at last, to some other equally unexpected, equally out of the way, equally odd spot: for all the world like a bottle in some corner of the bay at a seaside resort. Somewhere, sometimes, there is fighting. Not for us. In the end, no doubt, our apparently aimless course will drift us through, or anchor us in, a blaze of war, quite suddenly; and as suddenly swirl us out again .... One just hasn’t, though, the time and detachment  to write, I find. But I’ve been collecting a few words, detaching lines from the ambient air, collaring one or two of the golden phrases that a certain wind blows from (will the Censor let me say?) Olympus, across the purple seas.**

Noel Olivier,  Maitland Radford,
Virginia Woolf (née Stephen),
and  Rupert Brooke
Aug 1911 (unknown photographer)
NPG x13124)
Marsh’s memoir includes several of the words, lines, and “golden phrases” that Brooke recorded in his notebook. These fragments of half-finished poems offer enigmatic hints of what could have been. The following is from Brooke's draft of a sonnet:

The poor scrap of a song that some man tried
Down in the troop-decks forrard, brought again
The day you sang it first, on a hill-side,
With April in the wind and in the brain.
And the woods were gold; and youth was in our hands. 

Brooke died on the island of Skyros on April 23, 1915; the news appeared in the London Times on April 26th, and Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty of the British Navy, praised the young poet and his “simple force of genius” that communicated “the sorrow of youth about to die, and the sure triumphant consolations of a sincere and valiant spirit.” Churchill wrote, “The voice has been swiftly stilled. Only the echoes and memory remain; but they will linger.”***
*From Marsh’s memoir; other contemporary accounts attribute his death to sunstroke. Modern historians believe he died of septicemia from an infected mosquito bite.
** Rupert Brooke, in Rupert Brooke: A Memoir, by Edward Marsh, Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1918, pp. 173–174. 
***Winston Churchill, “Death of Mr. Rupert Brooke: Sunstroke at Lemnos,” London Times, 26 April 1915. 

Monday, July 26, 2021

Impotent clamour

Richard Aldington, image 

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
Of Psyche!

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!
    —Richard Aldington

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, 

Monday, May 31, 2021

Perhaps, when the war is over....

John Masefield, frontispiece from Selected Poems

When the First World War began in 1914, John Masefield, the second-longest serving Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom (1930-1967), was 34 years old. Just one month earlier, he had entertained Rupert Brooke as a house guest, the two men reading poetry and walking the Berkshire Downs together. An established writer, Masefield responded to the outbreak of war almost immediately with the poem “August, 1914.” Published in the English Review that September, it is a lengthy poem. This excerpt recalls the men who, leaving for war,

Then sadly rose and left the well-loved Downs,
And so by ship to sea, and knew no more
The fields of home, the byres, the market towns,
Nor the dear outline of the English shore,

But knew the misery of the soaking trench,
The freezing in the rigging, the despair
In the revolting second of the wrench
When the blind soul is flung upon the air….

Masefield had initially attempted to join the army, but was rejected for medical reasons, so he joined the reserves, briefly serving at the front as a medical orderly and later as a war historian, writing Gallipoli (1916), The Old Front Line (1917), and The Battle of the Somme (1919). Most of Masefield’s experiences of the war found expression in prose accounts of the battle sites he visited, and not in poetry. Masefield later explained, 

When the war began, I wrote some verses, called “August, 1914” …. Some other verses were written in the first months of the war, including some of the sonnets, but that was the end of my verse-writing. Perhaps, when the war is over and the mess of the war is cleaned up and the world is at some sort of peace, there may be leisure and feeling for verse-making.*

But Masefield did write another poem of the First World War, although it was not published until long after the war had ended, appearing in the 1939 volume The Queen’s Book of the Red Cross. The poem almost certainly  draws from Masefield’s own experiences in the Great War: it can be read in its entirety with context notes in International Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology of Lost Voices. 

Masefield, like many others, found it difficult to write and speak of his war experiences. Canadian soldier Amos William Mayse wrote to his wife, “I am sure that if spared I shall wake often with the horror of it all before me & I shall not want to talk much about it either.”** What other soldiers found difficult to talk about, Masefield found difficult to shape into poetry. “Red Cross” is Masefield’s delayed war poem; published over twenty years after his experiences of the Great War, he anticipated the war that was to come.
* John Masefield, “Preface,” The Poems and Plays of John Masefield: Volume One Poems, Macmillan, 1920, p. xviii.
** Amos William Mayse, letter to wife & kiddies, 23 June 1917, Canadian Letters & Images Project, Stephen Davies, Project Director,

Friday, April 30, 2021

Above the shot-blown trench

Lt. Henry Lionel Field

Henry Lionel Field, known to his friends and family as “Harry,” was an aspiring artist who was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, less than two months after his twenty-second birthday. Field joined the 6th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in September of 1914 and was commissioned as a Lieutenant the following month. His commanding officer recalled that the young officer was “always to be depended on, very collected under fire,” and one of the men who served under him wrote, “We respected him and we loved him, and whatever we shall do without him I don’t know, he was good to us.”* 

Harry had written to his sister, “Fancy me writing poetry! Always before I used to laugh at the idea and say, ‘Never, never would I be such a fool!’ But it’s like this, when you can’t draw you must write, when you can’t write you must sing, when you can’t sing you must act. And when you can’t do any of these things you must fall in love! … so you see I can’t help myself.” 

H.L. Field, view of trench 

After his death, his family published a selection of Field’s poems and sketches, Poems and Drawings (1917). A family member (most likely his brother Richard) explained in the volume’s preface, “We print them here, not only for the promise they show, but that people who care for him, and for whom this book is intended, may see and know something of his inner life during the arduous years of learning and training, up to the great attack on 1 July.”

Above the shot-blown trench he stands,
Tall and thin against the sky;
His thin white face, and thin white hands,
Are the signs his people know him by.
His soldier’s coat is silver barred
And on his head the well-known crest.
Above the shot-blown trench he stands,
The bright escutcheon on his breast,
And traced in silver bone for bone
The likeness of a skeleton.
        —Henry Lionel Field

H.L. Field, sketch of a soldier
Field is buried at Serre Road Cemetery No. 2, along with many of his men. Martin Gilbert’s history of the Somme reports that “Of the 836 men who set out with Henry Field in the attack, 520 were killed and 316 wounded.”**

His father chose for the inscription on his son’s headstone “The Everlasting Arms Are Wide,” lines taken from the last stanzas of Harry’s poem “Carol for Christmas, 1914”:

 Lord Thou has been our refuge sure,
     The Everlasting Arms are wide,
Thy words from age to age endure,
     Thy loving care will still provide. 

Vouchsafe that we may see, dear Lord,
     Vouchsafe that we may see,
Thy purpose through the aching days…
* Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from R.F.’s preface to H.L. Field’s Poems and Drawings, Cornish, 1917.
** The Somme, Macmillan, 2007, p. 60. 

Monday, April 19, 2021

Blood-red roses and things that are not men

Muriel Stuart

Few today have heard of the British poet Muriel Stuart, but she was regarded as one of the best—and perhaps most unconventional—of the women writers of the early twentieth century. Thomas Hardy wrote a letter that praised her poetry as “superlatively good,” and Hugh MacDiarmid asserted, “Her power derives from her complete individuality of perception and her forthrightness of utterance. She stoops at no trimming or concealing.”*

But direct forthrightness is not universally praised in women. In Post-Victorian Poetry (1938), Herbert Palmer acknowledges that Muriel Stuart was one of the most prominent poets in the years during the Great War and immediately following, but he adds, “She seemed something of an overflow from the Yellow Nineties** a sort of female Dowson** with a dash of Keats …. She was, in particular, a poet of physical passion, expressing, too, all the disillusionment that comes from it …. She is in some of her earlier verse, like [D.H.] Lawrence, a poet of the generative forces of earth, of that dark creative passion which defies human law and convention.”***

Stuart’s war poem “It’s Rose-time Here” opens with highly traditional, almost clichéd references to roses, posy-rings, and the “pomp of May.” These are images that could easily be mistaken for lines written in the High Victorian period. But in the middle of the poem, an appalling shift occurrs that merges roses with wet blood and “things are not men— / Things shapeless, sodden, mute.”

It’s Rose-time Here…

Soul of the Rose (1908)
John William Waterhouse
It’s rose-time here . . .
How could the Spring
Be the same merry thing?
How could she sparkle April's posy-ring
Upon the finger of this widowed year?
How could she bring
Her gauds so pitilessly near?
How could she bear
To lead the pomp of May,
The primings and the promises of June
So near, so soon,
In the old happy way?
How could she dare
To prick the eyes of Grief
With mockeries of returning bud and leaf?
How could she wear
Such coloured broideries
Beside the tattered garments of despair?
Tenting the hills with April's canopies,
Setting the tulips’ spears . . .
How could she keep her tourneys through such tears?

She did not care . . .
The roses are as beautiful this year.
The lily never doffed
One golden plume, nor did the May renounce
One thrilling splendour, nor wear one pearl less.
She has not grieved—even a little space—
For those who loved her once—
For those whom surely she must once have loved.

It’s rose-time here . . .
While over there
Where all the roses of the world have blown
The blood is not yet dried upon their hair,
Their eyes have scarcely filmed against the moon,
The sun has not yet utterly gone out;
Almost the stained grass still
Is conscious of their breath—
Those heavenly roses, torn and tossed about
On the vast plains of Death.

Paths of Glory, CRW Nevinson
 © IWM ART 518

It’s rose-time here . . .
(How I shall always hate the Spring
For being such a calm, untroubled thing.)
While over there
Where there're no children left to pull
The few scared, ragged flowers,
All that was ours, and, God, how beautiful!
All, all, that once was ours
Lies faceless, mouthless, mire in mire,
So lost to all sweet semblance of desire
That we in those fields seeking desperately
One face long-lost to Love,—one face that lies
Only upon the breast of Memory—
Would never know it—even though we stood
Upon its breast, or crushed its dreadful eyes,
Would never find it—even the very blood
Is stamped into the horror of the mud:
Something that mad men trample under foot
In the narrow trench—for these things are not men—
Things shapeless, sodden, mute
Beneath the monstrous limber of the guns;
Those things that loved us once . . .
Those that were ours, but never ours again.

It’s rose-time here . . .
—Muriel Stuart 

Nosheen Khan admires Stuart’s skill in contrasting “seemingly sentimental context [with] the brutal realities of trench warfare,” and argues that Stuart's poem demonstrates “that women could vividly apprehend the putrefacient transmogrification that became many a lover's lot in the trenches.” Khan notes that while Wilfred Own denounces other war poets for their use of “euphemistic devices…. Stuart’s poem illustrates how such euphemisms could be adroitly used to decry war.”† 

"It's Rose-time Here" deliberately presents the romance of the idyllic pre-war pastoral so that it can be dismantled and discredited when contrasted with the gruesome realities of 1918: rotting bodies no longer recognizable as men lie scattered across the fields of Belgium and France. 

In 1923, Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry magazine, visited London and met with the most famous authors of the day, among them Muriel Stuart. Monroe recalls, 

Muriel Stuart was a new acquaintance, one whose personality fulfilled the promise of her two books of verse. After all it is illuminating to meet a poet-correspondent eye to eye—something in this lady confirmed the feeling our readers may have shared with me, that she is the most interesting of the younger English poets. Her first adventure in motherhood—in private life she is Mrs. Minnitt—had just been successfully passed when I reached London; she was not sure whether a book or a baby was the more important achievement.††

Perhaps Stuart had already begun to realize that the demands of domestic life threatened her work as a writer. After her second child, Stuart “gave up writing poetry and took to gardening.”††† She wrote two gardening books (Fool’s Garden, 1936 and Gardener’s Nightcap, 1938) as well as contributing to gardening magazines. As Virginia Woolf notes, without money and a room of one’s own, even the most talented women writers are likely to disappear from literary history.
* The Hardy letter is frequently referenced, but the original seems to be lost. MacDiarmid’s comment appears in his essay “Muriel Stuart” (Scottish Educational Journal, 23 Oct. 1925).
** Yellow Nineties: from the literary journal The Yellow Book, the term is used to refer to the period’s permissiveness and avant-garde aesthetics. Ernest Dowson: a British poet associated with the Decadent movement.
*** Herbert Palmer, Post-Victorian Poetry, JM Dent, 1938, pp. 274–275.
† Nosheen Khan, “Women’s Poetry of the First World War,” thesis, University of Warwick, August 1986, pp. 96–97.
†† Harriet Monroe, “The Editor in England,” Poetry, Oct. 1923, v 23, n. 1, p. 38.
††† “Muriel Stuart,” biography from Persephone Books