Thursday, June 14, 2018

Little Things

British women at war graves in France 
In the midst of the Great War, a short piece titled “They Help One to Forget the War’s Burden” appeared in the Bristol Times and Mirror on the feature page “Women and The Home”:

The little things, after all, are the great things. Let us, in this time of the nation’s agony, these days of horror, anxiety, and breaking hearts, come back to some remembrance of the eternally beautiful little things.  Surrounded by the Great War – great battleships, great armoured cars, great armies, let us spare a moment now and then for getting alone with the stars—just a moment’s silent watching.  You cannot think of rising prices, or overcrowded tramways, or wearying office-work, and see the pale Pleiades and a rising moon at the same time – thank God, the little things help us to forget!  You can feel lonely and sad, perhaps, but it will not be a hopeless loneliness—you will be looking at something Eternal.

Looking for the Eternal in wartime was often an attempt to combat hopeless loneliness. 

Evelyn Underhill was an established writer when war was declared, the author of Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness (1911) and The Path of Eternal Wisdom (1912). She published her second volume of poetry, Theophanies in 1916; a quotation from John Scotus Erigena appeared on the title page: “Every visible and invisible creature is a theophany or appearance of God.”
Evelyn Underhill

The majority of Underhill’s poems take as their central themes the natural world and spiritual questions, but eight of the last nine poems in Theophanies are war poems.  In these, Underhill struggles to find glimpses of God in the midst of war. The book was not well-received, and a critic for The Literary Digest wrote,
Miss Evelyn Underhill is a student of mysticism who writes best when she avoids her favorite subject.  In her “Theophanies: a Book of Verse” …  the poems on spiritual themes are not convincing, but “Any Englishwoman,” altho it is a slight thing for so great a tragedy to inspire, seems to be as sincere as it is imaginative and well phrased.*

Any Englishwoman
May 1915

            England’s in flower.
On every tree speared canopies unfold,
And sacred beauty crowns the lowliest weeds
Lifting their eager faces from the mould:
            Even in this hour
The unrelented pressure of the spring
Thrusts out new lovely life, unfaltering—
            Toward what deeds?
        What dreadful blossoming?

Ah, the red spines upon the curving briar,
            They tear the heart
            Great with desire
        And sick with sleepless pain
        For one that comes not again.
There’s horror in the fragrance of the air,
Torment in this intolerable art.
        White petals on the pear!
            Yet peering there,
I see beyond the rapture of the young green
        And passing of pale fire
The glutton Death, who smiles upon the scene.

Grave in No Man's Land, Margaret Hall,
c. 1918-19, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Last night there was a sudden wind that blew
        My joyful branches through.
Yesterday a rich blossom on the spray,
All the sweet promise of life is vanished away:
Yea, of its ardent petals just a few
        White on the ground
            I found.
Bury them quick—I must not see them decay.

Others may know the triumph of the year
        And coming of the clear
Still days of autumn to redeem our grief.
For them the colored bough, the noble sheaf:
            But I shall see
The petals that fell too soon from the blossoming tree,
            And the stain
There on the path, where they rest in the sorrowful rain.
            —Evelyn Underhill

This is not T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” and yet the “unrelented pressure of the spring” with its “dreadful blossoming” foreshadows the first lines of that poem: “April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land.”

Grieving Woman with medals c. 1918
City of Toronto Archives 
For many English women, the fallen petals of spring recalled countless men who had died too soon. For them and for their beloved soldiers, “All the sweet promise of life is vanished away.” Both men and blossoms lie “White on the ground,” an intolerable sight that provokes the anguished plea, “Bury them quick—I must not see them decay.” Where is the Eternal to be found in these stains on the rain-spattered path?

The war changed Underhill, for as one scholar writes, “Her rather optimistic theology was unable to explain the cruel realities of World War I.”  In the years following the Armistice, she sought spiritual direction from Baron Friedrich von Hügel, one of the most respected theologians in Europe at that time and moved toward “more Christocentric thought and a growing balance between God’s immanence and transcendence.”**

In the interwar period, Underhill became increasingly committed to pacifism. Shortly before her death in 1941, she wrote to a friend,
Christianity and war are incompatible, and . . . nothing worth having can be achieved by “casting out Satan by Satan.” Never theatrical herself, she urged that people of her persuasion not be “controversial, or go in for propaganda.***
In the same letter she “characterized Hitler as a ‘scourge of God,who could be countered by two means: war or the cross – ‘And only a very small number are ready for the Cross, in the full sense of loving and unresisting abandonment to the worst that may come.’”
* “Current Poetry, The Literary Digest, 7 March 1917, vol. 54, p. 714.
** Todd E. Johnson, “Life as Prayer: The Development of Evelyn Underhill’s Spirituality,” Fuller Studio,, Accessed 13 June 2018.
*** Robert Gail Woods, “The Future We Shan’t See: Evelyn Underhill’s Pacifism,” Religion Online,, Accessed 13 June 2018.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Going In

Eve of the Battle of the Somme
Herbert James Gunn, the Fleming Collection

Henry Lamont Simpson was the son of a tailor from Newcastle. Raised in Carlisle, he attended Carlisle Grammar School (now Trinity School) and won numerous prizes in maths, reading, French, and classics. Simpson was awarded a scholarship to Cambridge at Pembroke College, but deferred admission and instead joined the Lancashire Fusiliers in 1917. By July of that year, he was planning a book of poetry and sending drafts of his manuscript to a former teacher, H.C. Duffin. Wounded in September of 1917, Simpson composed an epitaph for himself while in hospital:

                             ON HIS FEET

His poetry was published in 1919 in the volume Moods and Tenses, and Duffin’s introductory note states that it is “obvious from his poems that Simpson was a worshipper at the shrine of that brightest of youth’s ideas, friendship.”* The majority of the poems had been written before Simpson joined up or during military training, but ten poems were composed after the young lieutenant had been at the front. One of those — “Going In”— was started while Simpson was fighting in the Ypres sector and revised while at Carlisle recovering from wounds. The poem’s title uses word play to suggest both moving forward into battle and plunging into water.  It’s intriguing to compare this poem with A.P. Herbert’s “The Bathe,” written at Gallipoli: “Come friend and swim.”

Going In

We went down to the lake
Soldiers Swimming at Somme © IWM (Q 913)
Yesterday, half a hundred friends and I,
And laughed and sang to shake
The clouds in the sky.

The golden sunlight splashed
Through the half-asleep contented trees,
To where sun-brown bodies flashed
And sprawled at ease….

There are three things of worth
(Let me say this much before all ends)—
Loveliness, and mirth,
These, and friends.

I have had my fill of these three;
The earth is very full of lovely things—
Trees, and hills, and the sea
Full of gulls’ wings.

Soldiers Splashing at Somme © IWM (Q 914) 
I have had my fill of these three;
The earth is very full of mirthful things—
Thank God for all there be
Whence laughter springs.

I have had my fill of these three;
Friendship is the greatest gift God sends—
All men were brothers to me,
Most were my friends….

God, take my life to-day
Before the leaves of loveliness are shed,
And mirth is hid away,
And friends are dead.  
            (Ypres, August 1917 and Carlisle, November 1917
            —Henry Lamont Simpson

Why are there numerous war poems about soldiers bathing? Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory explains,
Watching men (usually “one’s own” men) bathing naked becomes a set-piece scene in almost every memory of the war. And this conventional vignette of soldiers bathing under the affectionate eye of their young officer recurs not because soldiers bathe but because there’s hardly a better way of projecting poignantly the awful vulnerability of mere naked flesh…. the stark contrast between beautiful frail flesh and the alien metal that waits to violate it.**
Simpson’s poem contrasts one carefree day of life with the death that imminently awaits many of the men. But in this poem, it is not only the men’s bodies that are vulnerable, but their minds and emotions. What could be worse than dying in battle? Watching one’s friends die. 

Henry Lamont Simpson
Trinity College Memorial
Less than three months after his twenty-first birthday, in August of 1918, Henry Lamont Simpson was killed by a sniper while reconnoitering in No Man’s Land. His father wrote to the Master of Pembroke, “It is my painful duty to notify you that my son 2nd Lieut, HL Simpson, for whom you were holding a scholarship, was killed in action in France on August 28th.” His former teacher ensured that Simpson’s poems were published, noting, “On the whole, the grisly experience of the Western Front—though he hated it, as all good men must hate such hateful things—was good for his verse…. The shock of war—though for a time it killed in him all desire to write—sent his power along new channels.”

His body was never recovered: Henry Lamont Simpson’s name is just one of 9,847 listed on Vis-en-Artois memorial to the missing in France.
* H.L. Simpson, Moods and Tenses, Erskine Macdonald, 1919, p. 8.
** Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford UP, 2000, p. 299.
Simpson, Moods and Tenses, p. 7.