Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Dead Man's Bread

Leslie Heron Beauchamp
On October 6, 1915, just one week after spending leave in England with his sister, and a little over one week before that sister’s birthday, Leslie Heron Beauchamp died in Ploegsteert Wood, near Messines, Belgium.  Known to his family as “Chummie,” Beauchamp was instructing troops in the use of grenades when one malfunctioned, killing him and a nearby officer.   

Beauchamp’s sister was the author Katherine Mansfield. For the rest of her life, she was haunted by his death. 

To L.H.B. (1894 – 1915)
Katherine Mansfield
by Katherine Mansfield

Last night for the first time since you were dead
I walked with you, my brother, in a dream.
We were at home again beside the stream
Fringed with tall berry bushes, white and red.
“Don’t touch them: they are poisonous,” I said.
But your hand hovered, and I saw a beam
Of strange, bright laughter flying round your head.
And as you stooped I saw the berries gleam.
“Don’t you remember? We called them Dead Man’s Bread!”
I woke and heard the wind moan and the roar
Of the dark water tumbling on the shore.
Where – where is the path of my dream for my eager feet?
By the remembered stream my brother stands
Waiting for me with berries in his hands…
“These are my body.  Sister, take and eat.”

What is real – the dream or the death?  The first nine lines of Mansfield’s poem recall a dream in which a protective older sister warns her brother against the dangers of beautiful, poisonous berries.  As dreams typically unfold, the commonplace scene is intertwined with the surreal, as her brother’s head seems haloed in “a beam/Of strange, bright laughter.”  Saint-like, he stands before her. 

The rhymes of the poem break off and change in the tenth line, as the dreamer awakes from the pastoral scene to a storm that echoes her distress:  a moaning wind and the dark confusion of pounding waves.   Futilely, she searches for the “path of my dream,” for a way back to the imagined world and the comforting, resurrected presence of her dead brother.  In her dream, the brother who was killed in war waits for her, holding “Dead Man’s Bread.” With berries in his hands, he offers her communion.  How can what has been so brutally taken by War be restored?  It is possible to rejoin her sibling, but only if she herself eats of death, symbolized by both the scarlet fruit and her dead brother’s body. 

The poem beautifully and subtly gives voice to the despair of women who were left to mourn the dead.  It was neither Christian nor proper for women to admit to suicidal thoughts, but journals and letters of the period make clear that many longed for release and oblivion.  Mansfield channeled her grief into her writing, as her notebooks from early in 1916 show:
Ploegsteert Wood Military Cemetery

“Now—now I want to write recollections of my own country. Yes, I want to write about my own country till I simply exhaust my store. Not only because it is “a sacred debt” that I pay to my country because my brother and I were born there, but also because in my thoughts I range with him over all the remembered places. I am never far away from them. I long to renew them in writing…But all must be told with a sense of mystery, a radiance, an afterglow, because you, my little sun of it, are set. You have dropped over the dazzling brim of the world. Now I must play my part.”

After his death, Leslie Beauchamp became a ghostly Muse for his sister: “When I am not writing I feel my brother calling me & he is not happy.  Only when I write or am in state of writing – a state of inspiration – do I feel that he is calm.” Rest in peace, Lt. Beauchamp and the sister who loved you.  

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Wrecks of No Man's Land

Zonnebeke by William Orpen
Some poems seem more like stories, and Arthur Graeme West’s “Night Patrol” reads almost as if it were an account found in a diary or memoir.  West, a man whose friends described him as “quiet, tranquil, and unassuming,” enlisted in January of 1915, arriving at France's Western Front in November of that year. 

In February of 1916, he wrote in a letter to a friend, “Also I had rather an exciting time myself with two other men on a patrol in the “no man’s land” between the lines.  A dangerous business, and most repulsive on account of the smells and appearance of the heaps of dead men that lie unburied there as they fell, on some attack or other, about four months ago.  I found myself much as I had expected in the face of these happenings: more interested than afraid, but more careful for my own life than anxious to approve any new martial ardour….For the Hun I feel nothing but a spirit of amiable fraternity that the poor man has to sit just like us and do all the horrible and useless things that we do, when he might be at home with his wife or his books” (Powell’s A Deep Cry). 

Here is his poetic description of that "exciting time":  

Night Patrol
France, March 1916
by Arthur Graeme West

Over the top! The wire’s thin here, unbarbed
Plain rusty coils, not staked, and low enough:
Full of old tins, though—“When you’re through, all three,
Aim quarter left for fifty yards or so,
Then straight for that new piece of German wire;
See if it’s thick, and listen for a while
For sounds of working; don’t run any risks;
About an hour; now, over!”
                                           And we placed
Our hands on the topmost sand-bags, leapt, and stood
A second with curved backs, then crept to the wire,
Wormed ourselves tinkling through, glanced back, and dropped.
The sodden ground was splashed with shallow pools,
And tufts of crackling cornstalks, two years old,
No man had reaped, and patches of spring grass.
Half-seen, as rose and sank the flares, were strewn
With the wrecks of our attack: the bandoliers,
Packs, rifles, bayonets, belts, and haversacks,
Shell fragments, and the huge whole forms of shells
Shot fruitlessly—and everywhere the dead.
Only the dead were always present—present
As a vile sickly smell of rottenness;
The rustling stubble and the early grass,
The slimy pools — the dead men stank through all,
Pungent and sharp; as bodies loomed before,
And as we passed, they stank: then dulled away
To that vague fœtor, all encompassing,
Infecting earth and air. They lay, all clothed,
Each in some new and piteous attitude
That we well marked to guide us back: as he,
Outside our wire, that lay on his back and crossed
His legs Crusader-wise; I smiled at that,
And thought on Elia and his Temple Church.
From him, at quarter left, lay a small corpse,
Down in a hollow, huddled as in bed,
That one of us put his hand on unawares.
Next was a bunch of half a dozen men
All blown to bits, an archipelago
Of corrupt fragments, vexing to us three,
Who had no light to see by, save the flares.
On such a trail, so lit, for ninety yards
We crawled on belly and elbows, till we saw,
Instead of lumpish dead before our eyes,
The stakes and crosslines of the German wire.
We lay in shelter of the last dead man,
Ourselves as dead, and heard their shovels ring
Turning the earth, then talk and cough at times.
A sentry fired and a machine-gun spat;
They shot a flare above us, when it fell
And spluttered out in the pools of No Man’s Land,
We turned and crawled past the remembered dead:
Past him and him, and them and him, until,
For he lay some way apart, we caught the scent
Of the Crusader and slid past his legs,
And through the wire and home, and got our rum.

The poem--like the men it describes-- begins with a leap into action: “Over the top!”  In a pitch-black night, the soldiers are given orders to advance across No Man’s Land to scout the German trenches.  They stand, leap, creep, and worm their way forward, quickly encountering the litter of the battles that have been fought over this ground:  bandoliers (shoulder belts that carry bullets), bayonets, packs, guns -- and the bodies of the unburied dead who couldn’t be retrieved.  Abandoned equipment, abandoned men.  

In a ghastly twist on the fairy tale story of “Hansel and Gretel,” the men of the night patrol navigate not by tracking a trail of breadcrumbs, but by following a trail of corpses.  Closest to their own lines is the nicknamed “Crusader” who resembles a medieval tomb effigy as he lies on his back with his legs crossed.  The men on patrol next encounter a small man curled in a fetal position, “huddled as in a bed”; then the scattered remains of the six men blown to pieces, resembling an archipelago of decaying body parts; and finally the man who died almost at the parapet of the German trenches, whose body shelters those who have crept forward to spy.   

Contrasting with the “lumpish dead” who stink horribly, “infecting earth and air,” the German soldiers, unaware of the enemy night patrol, are alive with noise and movement. They shovel earth, talk, cough, spit, and fire their guns. 

The soldiers on patrol observe the inconsequential activities of the enemy, and then must make the hazardous return journey back to their own trenches, “Past him and him, and them and him” – using the dead as landmarks, the men who were comrades in arms before the war transformed them into signposts of No Man’s Land. 

Arthur Graeme West
The poem closes with a final ironic detail: having completed their mission, the soldiers receive their daily ration of rum, 1/16th of a pint, the army's answer to the horrors they have seen. 

During his time in the trenches, Arthur Graeme West grew increasingly disillusioned with the war, at one point considering desertion or suicide as preferable to returning to the Western Front.  In September of 1916, he wrote, “There was but one way for me, and I have seen it only when it was too late to pursue it.  To defy the whole system, to refuse to be an instrument of it – this I should have done.”  He was killed by a sniper’s bullet at morning “stand-to” on April 3, 1917. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Unfamous history

It's not uncommon to read poems about the First World War written from the perspective of fathers, mothers, sisters, or sweethearts of men who had left to fight, but I can think of only two poems written by sons of soldiers.  Ironically, both poets' fathers served with the Lancashire Fusiliers.  One of those poems -- "Six Young Men" – was written by Ted Hughes nearly forty years after the war had ended.  Hughes himself had no memory of the war, as he was born in 1930, twelve years after the Armistice. 

Another lesser known poem – "The Son" – was written by Clifford Dyment when he was just 21 years old.  Dyment was born in January of 1914 to Bessie and William Dyment.  His autobiography, The Railway Game, includes an early memory of his young father in their home in the village of Caerleon-on-Usk in Wales, probably shortly before his father enlisted: 

It was my father's job to light the lamp in the evening. To me this was a ritual and a spectacle that invested him with priestly power and glory. He held a match to the wick and the wild wick snatched the flame from his hand and threw it up in the air and bounced it on the floor and hurled it up to the ceiling and flung it from wall to wall: it was a rough and playful exhibition of the eternal conflict between the forces of light and darkness. Majestically my father turned the lamp's brass wheel and the romping flame was hauled instantly back into the lamp like a tiger into its cage: the ceremony, short, brilliant, and daunting, was over. Now a cone of sunshiny radiance hung placidly from the lamp to the floor, and until it was time for me to be put to bed I scrambled about in a bell-tent made of light.

Dyment was just four when his father died; his poem "The Son" was published seventeen years later in 1935. 

The Son
by Clifford Dyment

I found the letter in a cardboard box,
Unfamous history. I read the words.
The ink was frail and brown, the paper dry
After so many years of being kept.
The letter was a soldier's, from the Front—
Conveyed his love and disappointed hope
Of getting leave. 'It's cancelled now,' he wrote.
'My luck is at the bottom of the sea.'

Outside the sun was hot; the world looked bright;
I heard a radio, and someone laughed.
I did not sing, or laugh, or love the sun.
Within the quiet room I thought of him,
My father killed, and all the other men,
Whose luck was at the bottom of the sea.

The first stanza's images of age and decay separate the living son from his dead father and from the past.  In an ordinary cardboard box, the son has found a letter that is "history," a pedestrian, common sort of history that was never widely known and that will be forgotten within a generation.  It seems that the box has been hidden away, and although the letter is precious for having been "kept," this is likely the first time the son has seen his father's handwriting.  Without emotion, the young man tells us flatly that he "read the words."  The poem creates a further emotional distance describing the letter as that of "a soldier's, from the front," as if it could be from any man.  The letter's message is simple and universal, writing of love and longing for home.  The news is of a cancelled leave, and the soldier's resigned despair can be heard in his words:  "My luck is at the bottom of the sea." 

The second stanza abruptly shifts to the present: the sun, a radio, laughter.  But the young man detaches himself from the present moment, sitting alone and apart in "the quiet room," remembering his father and "all the other men" whose "luck was at the bottom of the sea."  The luckless include not only the men who died in the war, but the men who grew up fatherless.  As well, the repetition of the phrase "luck is at the bottom of the sea" underscores the hopelessness and powerless of ordinary people during war time. 

William Dyment, Clifford Dyment's father, will never be famous, but he need not be forgotten.  He was born September 15, 1888 in Llancarfen, Wales and baptized there as well.  He married Bessie Riding on October 20, 1912 in the Registry Office in Newport.  They moved to Caerleon-on-Usk and lived at 1 Ashwell Terrace in a two-room cottage that has since been destroyed.  William was a carpenter who set himself up in business as a cabinet maker until on May 17, 1917 he joined the Royal Engineers  (later the Lancashire Fusiliers).   In just over a year, on May 22, 1918, he would die outside Amiens, France and be buried in the Varennes Military Cemetery, Section II, Row M, Grave 6.  

In 1919-1920, when British military cemeteries were erecting permanent headstones to commemorate the Commonwealth war dead, relatives were contacted and asked if they wished to purchase a brief epitaph inscription (limited to 66 characters).  Records indicate that a letter was sent to William Dyment's next of kin, B. Dyment, in Nottingham.  Next to his name is noted, "No Reply."   

Visitor book entry for WC Dyment, Varennes.  Handwriting comparison and analysis suggests that his son, Clifford, is the visitor who added personal details. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Making paths in the dark

Death Refuses, Percy Smith
Thomas Ernest Hulme published only six poems before he was killed in September of 1917.  Despite the limited number of poems, however, T.E. Hulme is recognized as one of the most influential writers in the emergence of modernist literature, admired by both Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. 

Hulme’s poem “Trenches: St. Eloi,” was most likely composed in May of 1915 while he was in an English hospital recovering from a bullet wound.  The shot had blasted through Hulme’s elbow, killing the soldier who was beside him.  Hulme had previously described battle trenches in his letters home: 

            I don’t think I’ve been so exasperated for years as I was in taking up my position in this trench.  It wasn’t an ordinary one but was roofed over most of the way leaving passage about 4 ft.: absolutely impossible for me to walk through.  I had to crawl along on my hands & knees, through the mud in pitch darkness & every now and then seemed to get stuck altogether.  You feel shut in and hopeless.  I wished I was about 4 ft.  This war isn’t for tall men.  I got in a part too narrow and too low to stand or sit & had to stay there from about 7 pm till just before dawn next morning, a most miserable experience.  You can’t sleep & you sit as it were at the bottom of a drain with nothing to look at but the top of the ditch slowly freezing (27 January 1915). 

“Trenches: St. Eloi” shares another impression of the front lines.  Its epigraph acknowledges the poem’s conversational origins, and it is believed that either Ezra Pound or Hulme’s fiancée, Kate Lechmere, transcribed it.  In November of 1915, the subtly crafted lines were published in Pound’s Catholic Anthology.  British poet Carol Rumens has said, “The poem is as stark as the period's cubist art.”

Trenches: St Eloi 
(Abbreviated from the Conversation of Mr TEH)

Over the flat slopes of St Eloi
A wide wall of sand bags.
In the silence desultory men
Pottering over small fires, cleaning their mess-tins:
To and fro, from the lines,
Men walk as on Piccadilly,
Making paths in the dark,
Through scattered dead horses,
Over a dead Belgian's belly.
The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets.
Behind the line, cannon, hidden, lying back miles.
Beyond the line, chaos:
My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.
Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.

With just a few words, the poem's opening sketches a scene that seems serene and almost domestic: men fuss with meal preparations (“pottering over small fires”) or “walk as on Piccadilly” (one of London’s streets, famous for its shops and theatres).  Only the solitary, foreboding word “Night” gives a hint of the horrors that hide just outside the fire’s light. Casually, without warning, the poem pivots at its midway point: “Making paths in the dark.”  In the sightless night, men stumble over dead animals and human corpses, their boots walking over the remains of dead men.  Writing home from Flanders just days before he was shot, Hulme recorded, “One of our snipers walking about in the daylight discovered that one of these paths that we walk over led right over the chest of a dead peasant (Belgian).”

Flatly and without emotion, the hopeless situation is catalogued:  the Germans are using their artillery to shell the British troops mercilessly, while the British cannon are silent, “hidden, lying back miles.”  The men have been ordered to the Front; the guns remain ineffectively in the rear.  The men who survive the shelling in the trenches will be ordered over the top into the “chaos” that lies beyond the line.  They are helpless to control what is happening to them and powerless to resist the illogical way the war is being fought. 

In the last chilling image of the poem, the soldiers’ minds are likened to corridors -- narrow, tunnel-like hallways that stretch the lengths of hospitals and asylums.  Trapped as if in a maze, the men’s thoughts have nowhere to escape, but can only “keep on,” funneled forward into the madness ahead. 

T.E. Hulme
Hulme recovered from his wound and was sent back to Flanders in March of 1917.  Biographer Robert Ferguson writes that on September 28th, “Hulme suffered a direct hit from a large shell which literally blew him to pieces. Apparently absorbed in some thought of his own he had failed to hear it coming and remained standing while those around threw themselves flat on the ground. What was left of him was buried in the Military Cemetery at Koksijde, West-Vlaanderen, in Belgium.”

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The sound of his key in the door

Who was the most popular poet of the First World War?  It was not Wilfred Owen -- not Siegfried Sassoon, not John McCrae,  not even Rupert Brooke.  The best-selling poet of the Great War was William Arthur Dunkerley, a teacher and the mayor of Worthing, a seaside town in Sussex. 

Writing under the pen name John Oxenham, Dunkerley was 61 when the war broke out in 1914.  He never saw the battlefield and never served in the military, yet the published volumes of this "armchair poet" sold over one-million copies and were immensely popular with both soldiers and their loved ones. 

Today, one-hundred years later, the writings of the best-selling poet of World War I are rarely read or included in anthologies.  David Roberts in his Introduction to Minds at War asserts, "Oxenham's popularity may be accounted for only by the fact that he was in tune with the most popular attitudes and images of soldiers," arguing that "those who wrote from the armchair" relied on "inadequate imagination" and often "showed a strange inability to grasp the nature of the war" (16 -17). 

It seems curious that a poet who supposedly didn’t understand the war was able to write immensely popular poems that mirrored  the thoughts and feelings of both soldiers and civilians who lived through the war. 

Oxenham's poem "His Latch Key" may explain his popularity, as the poem poignantly communicates what the war meant to those who helplessly waited for news of loved ones who had left home to fight for King and Country. 

His Latch Key
by John Oxenham

("I am sending you all my keys except the latch.  That I will keep, so that some day, when I get leave, I may walk in on you unexpectedly and give you a surprise.")

And long…long…long we waited
For the sound that would tell he was here,
For the sound that would tell us our vigil was o'er,
And our hearts need be anxious no more,--
For that sweetest of sounds that could fall on the ear
Of those who had lived on the knife-edge of fear,--
The sound of his key in the door;--
The sound of all sounds that could bring back life's cheer,
And comfort our hearts that were sore.
William Holman Hunt,
"Light of the World
O the ears of our souls strained as never before,
For that sound of all sounds that our joy would restore,--
The sound of his key in the door.

And we said, "We shall know when our boy's on the way."
And we said, "We shall know when he's near."
His step we shall catch while it's still far away,
And with it an end to our fear."
"But," we said,-- "we will wait for his key in the door,
For the sound that shall tell us our waiting is o'er,--
For the joy of its rattle, so gallant and gay,
As we've heard it so often of yore.
O yes, we shall know ere he reaches the door,
For his guardian angel will fly on before
To tell us he's on the way."

And so we waited, by night and by day,
For the sound that would all our long waiting repay,--
For the sound of his key in the door.

But now,--
Well…. "All's Well!" …but we're waiting no more
For the sound of his key in the door.
It lies with him there in his lowly grave,
Out there at the Front, where his all he gave
Our lives and the Soul of Life to save,
And our hopeful vigil is o'er.
For now it is he who is waiting for us,
On the other side of The Door;
And Another stands with him there, waiting for us,
And the sound of our key in That Door. 

The poem speaks of the agony of suspended lives.  In the first stanza, the word sound (or sounds) is used eight times in twelve lines, and both the second and third lines begin with the exact same phrase, “For the sound that would tell.”  The repetition of words and phrases expresses the tedium and frustration of waiting, the sense of being stuck, of being unable to move forward or break out of the anticipatory tension that permeates each and every day. 

In this war, the same promises, the same battle plans, the same tragic results are occurring over and over with numbing results, just as only seven rhymes are used in the thirty-seven-line poem.  As the ears of the souls strain to hear a familiar sound from the past, they catch only the monotony of the war that stretches on into what seems like eternity. 

With little fanfare, the war does extend into Eternity when those who wait learn that their soldier will never return.  The poem is silent about how that tragic news is delivered, offering only the broken off thoughts “But now,--“ and “Well….” and the stark finality of the line, “And our hopeful vigil is o’er.” 

The last four lines of the poem abruptly shift both the scene and perspective.  Here is no naïve optimism, but an assent to the pain of continued waiting until such time as everyone has died.  Yet the soldier who waits on the other side of The Door is not alone in his vigil, but comforted by the presence of Another, and the last line of the poem rings with the sound of reunion. 
WWI Epitaph, British cemetery in France