Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Ancient alchemy

TP Cameron Wilson
Theodore Percival Cameron Wilson, who preferred to be called “Jim,” was a writer, teacher, and son of a clergyman from rural England.  He volunteered for the British Army in August of 1914 and was later commissioned an officer with the 10th Battalion Sherwood Foresters.

After eighteen months as a soldier, in March of 1916, he wrote to his mother, “Out here you must trust yourself to a bigger Power and leave it at that.  You can’t face death....There’s no facing it.  It’s everywhere.  You have to walk through it, and under it and over it and past it.  Without the sense of God taking up the souls out of those poor torn bodies – even though they’ve died cursing Him – I think one would go mad.”

In June of 1916, he wrote the poem “The Soldier.”

“The Soldier”

He laughed.  His blue eyes sought the morning,
Found the unceasing song of the lark
In a brown twinkle of wings, far out.
Great clouds, like galleons, sailed the distance.
The young spring day had slipped the cloak of dark
And stood up straight and naked with a shout.
Through the green wheat, like laughing schoolboys,
Tumbled the yellow mustard flowers, uncheck'd.
The wet earth reeked and smoked in the sun . . .
He thought of the waking farm in England.
The deep thatch of the roof — all shadow-fleck 'd —
The clank of pails at the pump . . . the day begun.
"After the war . . . " he thought. His heart beat faster
With a new love for things familiar and plain.
The Spring leaned down and whispered to him low
Of a slim, brown-throated woman he had kissed . . .
He saw, in sons that were himself again,
The only immortality that man may know.

And then a sound grew out of the morning,
And a shell came, moving a destined way,
Thin and swift and lustful, making its moan.
A moment his brave white body knew the Spring,
The next, it lay
In a red ruin of blood and guts and bone.
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .  .   .   .   .
Oh ! nothing was tortured there ! Nothing could know
How death blasphemed all men and their high birth
With his obscenities. Already moved,
Within those shattered tissues, that dim force,
Which is the ancient alchemy of Earth,
Changing him to the very flowers he loved.
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .  .   .   .   .
"Nothing was tortured there!" Oh, pretty thought!
When God Himself might well bow down His head
And hide His haunted eyes before the dead.
--T.P. Cameron Wilson

“He laughed” – this is a war poem that begins with a laugh, and not an ironic one.  The opening lines exult in the sheer joy of a spring morning and “a new love for things familiar and plain.” Boisterous and joyful, the day is likened to a naked nature worshipper; the mustard flowers cavort like laughing schoolboys; a lark sings in the distance, and clouds move across the sky like proud sailing ships.

The wonders of the dawn remind the soldier of early mornings enjoyed on his farm at home and dare him to hope for a time after the war, for his return to the English countryside, for a wife and sons with whom to share the future.

But in a moment, all is utterly changed.  An enemy’s shell, its sound obscenely rising above the morning’s birdsong, transforms the brave white body into “a red ruin.”  Death itself is described as blasphemous and obscene, while the “ancient alchemy of Earth” changes what is left of the young soldier’s body to “the very flowers he loved.”

Twice, the poem repeats “Nothing was tortured there” as a kind of incantation that seeks desperately to assure witnesses, survivors, loved ones at home, and perhaps God Himself that it was a quick and painless death.  But it is meager comfort: even God’s eyes are haunted by the scenes of carnage and needless death that were commonplace during the First World War.

In spring of 1916, Wilson he sent a letter to a friend in England, urging, “Do teach your dear kids the horror of responsibility which rests on the war-maker.  I want so much to get at children about it.  We’ve been wrong in the past.  We have taught schoolboys ‘war’ as a romantic subject…And everyone has grown up soaked in the poetry of war – which exists, because there is poetry in everything, but which is only a tiny part of the great dirty tragedy.  All those picturesque phrases of war writers – such as ‘he flung the remnants of his Guard against the enemy,’ ‘a magnificent charge won the day and the victorious troops, etc. etc.,’ are dangerous because they show nothing of the individual horror, nothing of the fine personalities smashed suddenly into red beastliness, nothing of the sick fear that is tearing at the hearts of brave boys who ought to be laughing at home – a thing infinitely more terrible than physical agony.”

Like so many others and like the soldier of whom he wrote, T.P. Cameron Wilson did not return home from the war.  He was killed on March 22, 1918 during the German Spring Offensive; his body was never found.

In the introduction to Wilson’s posthumously published book of poems, Magpies in Picardy, Harold Monro wrote that Wilson was “extremely shy about his verse, and unlike most youthful poets, was always disinclined to let it be seen, or discussed by his friends….The question whether the poems which follow are, or are not, important contributions to the literature of our time will be decided by their readers. As the expression of a personality, they are, at any rate, remarkable.”

As we commemorate the centenary of the First World War, new readers can determine for themselves the value and merits of this lost voice of the war.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Rising and the War

On April 24th, Easter Monday of 1916, Irish republicans wishing to end British rule in Ireland used armed force to overtake strategic locations in Dublin and to proclaim an independent Ireland. The British Army responded by violently suppressing the Rising, executing its leaders, and imposing martial law.  A brief blog entry cannot provide the full background and context necessary to understand the Easter Rising, but the First World War played a significant role in dividing Irish loyalties.     

Many Irish had volunteered to serve in the British Army, believing that their service would be rewarded by British acceptance of Irish Home Rule.  However, in the aftermath of the Easter Rising and the associated violence and repressive actions of the British Army, Irishmen who had chosen to fight for England and with the British Army were commonly viewed as disloyal to Ireland. 

Speaking to this context of deeply divided loyalties, George William Russell, Irish nationalist, writer, and pacifist (known by the pseudonym AE), called for reconciliation and unity among the people of Ireland.  In a letter to the Irish Times written in December of 1917, Russell wrote,
“I myself am Anglo-Irish, with the blood of both races in me, and when the rising of Easter Week took place, all that was Irish in me was profoundly stirred, and out of that mood I wrote commemorating the dead.  And then later there rose in memory the faces of others I knew who loved their country, but had died in other battles.  They fought in those because they believed they would serve Ireland, and I felt these were no less my people.  I could hold them also in my heart and pay tribute to them.  Because it was possible for me to do so, I think it is possible for others; and in the hope that the deeds of all may in the future be a matter of pride to the new nation I append here these verses I have written.”

The poem Russell included with his letter was “To the Memory of Some I Knew Who Are Dead and Who Loved Ireland.”  In alternating stanzas, the poem honors both those killed in the Easter Rising and the Irish who died on the battlefields of the First World War.

To the Memory of Some I Knew Who Are Dead and Who Loved Ireland

Kilmainham Gaol, where Easter Uprising leaders were executed
Their dream had left me numb and cold,
But yet my spirit rose in pride,
Refashioning in burnished gold
The images of those who died,
Or were shut in the penal cell.
Here's to you, Pearse, your dream, not mine,
But yet the thought for this you fell,
Has turned life's waters into wine. 

You who have died on Eastern hills
Or fields of France as undismayed,
Who lit with interlinked wills
The long heroic barricade,
You, too, in all the dreams you had,
Thought of some thing for Ireland done.
Villers-Bretonneux cemetery, graves of Royal Irish Rgt soldiers
Was it not so, Oh, shining lad,
What lured you, Alan Anderson?

I listened to high talk from you,
Thomas McDonagh, and it seemed
The words were idle, but they grew
To nobleness by death redeemed.
Life cannot utter words more great
Than life may meet by sacrifice,
High words were equaled by high fate,
You paid the price.  You paid the price.

You who have fought on fields afar,
That other Ireland did you wrong
Who said you shadowed Ireland’s star,
Thomas Kettle
Nor gave you laurel wreath nor song.
You proved by death as true as they,
In mightier conflicts played your part,
Equal your sacrifice may weigh,
Dear Kettle, of the generous heart.

The hope lives on age after age,
Earth with its beauty might be won
For labour as a heritage,
For this has Ireland lost a son.
This hope unto a flame to fan
Men have put life by with a smile,
Here’s to you, Connolly, my man,
Who cast the last torch on the pile.

You, too, had Ireland in your care,
Who watched o’er pits of blood and mire,
From iron roots leap up in air
James Connolly
Wild forests, magical, of fire;
Yet while the Nuts of Death were shed
Your memory would ever stray
To your own isle.  Oh, gallant dead –
This wreath, Will Redmond, on your clay.

Here’s to you, men I never met,
Yet hope to meet behind the veil,
Thronged on some starry parapet,
That looks down on Innisfail,
And see the confluence of dreams
That clashed together in our night,
One river, born from many streams,
Roll in one blaze of blinding light.

In the first, third, and fifth stanzas, the poem memorializes leaders of the Easter Rising who were executed by the British: Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, and James Connolly (readers wishing further biographical information can follow the hyperlinks in the poem).  As Russell’s poem argues, even for those not sharing the dream of the Easter Rising, these men’s willingness to die for an independent Ireland was transformative, turning life’s water into wine and refashioning the men’s deaths into “burnished gold.” As WB Yeats wrote, “a terrible beauty is born.” The executed leaders of the Easter Rising paid the ultimate price, and laying down their lives, they fanned the hopes of Irish independence. 

But that same price was paid by the Irishmen named in the second, fourth, and sixth stanzas of the poem: Alan Anderson, Thomas Kettle, and Willie Redmond (for further biographical information, see the associated links).  Although killed in battle while fighting with the British Army, these men too fought for a dream and gave their all in the blood and mud of the Western Front, dying for their own isle, for their homes, for “Thought of some thing for Ireland done.” 

The poem’s last stanza attempts to reconcile the deep Irish divisions exacerbated by the war.  It imagines the two divided political causes as streams that join in a mighty confluence, mixing the best of each and amalgamating the differences until they form one majestic river that rolls forward in a “blaze of blinding light.” Whether a prophet or naïve optimist, Russell believed that if the people of Ireland were able to put aside their internal differences, they could achieve greatness as a free nation.  In the same letter in which he published his poem for those who had died for Ireland, Russell wrote,  
“And here I come to the purpose of my letter, which is to deprecate the scornful repudiation by Irishmen of other Irishmen, which is so common at present, and which helps to perpetuate our feuds.  We are all one people. We are closer to each other in character than we are to any other race.  The necessary preliminary to political adjustment is moral adjustment, forgiveness, and mutual understanding.”

The centenary of the Easter Rising and the First World War may perhaps prompt the kind of remembrance and reconciliation that Russell dreamed of.  An article written by Rowan McGreevy and published in the Irish Times in April of 2016 reminds us that in the same week in which 488 Irish were killed in Dublin during the Easter Rising, 532 men of the Irish Division were gassed, bayoneted, shelled, and shot in the gas attacks outside Hulluch in northern France. The article also calls us to remember the sacrifice of the hundreds of Germans who died in the attacks at Hulluch. 
Recruitment Poster

Dublin during the Easter Rising
Perhaps nothing makes the case so strongly, however, for the complexities of Ireland's political situation and the need for peace and reconciliation than one family’s poignant story from that tumultuous time.  Fighting with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and caught up in the gas attacks at Hulluch, Private John Naylor died on April 29th.  That same day, John Naylor's wife, Margaret, was shot and killed during the Easter Rising as she crossed Dublin's Ringsend drawbridge. Their three young orphaned daughters, Maggie, Kitty, and Tessie, survived, bearing the burdens of the past as they grew up into the future of the emerging nation of Ireland.   


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Home Fires

In April of 1916, at the same time that the fight for Verdun was being waged on the Western Front, an advertisement in London papers urged women “Don’t let WAR-STRAIN spoil your complexion.”  The makers of Ven-Yusa, a “novel Toilet crème,” cautioned women that “Anxiety for relatives at the Front, grief for those who have ‘gone west,’ and the stress of voluntary war work, are all bad for the skin.”  The contrasts between life at the front and life on the home front were dramatic. Soldiers wrote about their sense of dislocation while on leave, and the soldier poet Siegfried Sassoon castigated women’s naïve patriotism and blind innocence in his poem “The Glory of Women.”

Sadly, what has been lost in time are the voices of women who grappled with the paradoxical complexities of war.  In her poem "Homes," Margaret Widdemer, an American writer who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1919 (sharing the honor with Carl Sandburg), explores the contrasts between sites of war and places of peace. 


Bombing: Night, W. Orpen © IWM (Art.IWM ART 2994)
The lamplight's shaded rose
On couch and chair and wall,
The drowsy book let fall,
The children's heads, bent close
In some deep argument,
The kitten, sleepy-curled,
Sure of our good intent,
The hearth-fire's crackling glow:

His step that crisps the snow,
His laughing kiss, wind-cold. . . .

Only the very old
Gifts that the night-star brings,
Dear homely evening-things,

Dear things of all the world,
And yet my throat locks tight. . .

Somewhere far off I know

Are ashes on red snow
That were a home last night.
            -Margaret Widdemer

The first stanza of Widdemer’s poem describes a world seen through the rose-tinted light of a parlor lamp. It’s an idyllic domestic scene: a kitten naps before the fire, and children enjoy a quiet squabble while their mother nods off over the book she is reading.  At hearing the father’s “step that crisps the snow,” the family eagerly welcomes him home from the wind-cold night, enjoying his “laughing kiss.” 

The second stanza begins by reflecting on the universal timelessness and beauty of these “very old gifts,” giving thanks for a husband’s return and family gathered before the fireside.  Home, security, and love -- these are the dear things that the "night star brings." But the stanza ends with a short six-word sentence, the hinge on which the poem turns: “And yet my throat locks tight.” 

Warm and safe in her own home, the woman who speaks in the poem is deeply aware of her connection to other women who struggle in far different circumstances.  While her home rosily glows with lamplight, another woman’s home burns in the fires of war.  As her husband returns from a winter’s walk, other women’s sweethearts, sons, and husbands huddle in the bitter cold of the trenches.   
A Street in Arras, JS Sargent, © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1607)

German poet Maria Benneman’s poem “Visé” relates a similar moment of sympathy for other women whose lives are destroyed by the war -- in this case, destroyed by the actions of her own soldier-husband:

"you do your duty,
Blow this house up like all the rest.
…Was that a cry?  Or just a broken string?
Music, music behind you has collapsed." 

It’s easy to stereotype women’s views of the First World War as naïve and jingoist when one of the most commonly anthologized female poets is Jessie Pope (to whom Wilfred Owen angrily directed his most famous poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est).  A wider reading of women poets provides a richer and more complex understanding.  Margaret Widdemer is just one of the many poets who have been forgotten, despite her very positive critical reception at the time of the war.  

Widdemer was a prolific writer and an associate of Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and T.S. Eliot, but she is chiefly remembered today for popularizing the word middlebrow in her 1933 essay “Message and Middlebrow.”  The essay itself, like its author, has been largely forgotten, an irony that would not have been lost on Margaret Widdemer, for in “Message and Middlebrow,” she argues that literary critics and intellectual elites have coerced the reading public into accepting a narrow and truncated view of literary merit, one that attempts to exclude works that address ideals and morality.

Widdemer’s poem “Homes” depends on a shared sense of morality and humanity: it urges readers today as surely as it did nearly 100 years ago to consider the effects of war, even when those wars are very far from home, even when destruction is targeted at the enemy.  The poem challenges us to a visceral empathy with all who are caught up in devastating conflicts.  
Margaret Widdemer

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Brave Heart

Vernede's home, The Paper Mill in Standon
Nearly all of the poems of the First World War that have been preserved in the literary canon take as their subject scenes and actions from the trenches and fields of battle.  What have often been omitted are the many beautiful poems that describe men’s thoughts of home and of loved ones.

Robert E. Vernède, “of the dark eyes and the unforgettable smile,”* was a married man of thirty-nine, a published novelist, and an enthusiastic gardener when he enlisted with the British army.  Between November of 1915 and September of 1916, he served in some of the most dangerous locations on the Western Front, in the Ypres Salient and at the Somme.  He was injured at the Somme in September, sent home to recover, and returned to the Western Front in January of 1917.  

A friend of the writer GK Chesterton (they had attended school together), Vernède wrote hundreds of letters home.  These letters reveal him as an officer who cared deeply about his men, a writer with a dry wit and self-deprecating sense of humor, and a husband who was exceptionally close to his wife, Caroline Howard Vernède.   
To C.H.V

What shall I bring to you, wife of mine,
When I come back from the war?
A ribbon your dear brown hair to twine?
A shawl from a Berlin store?
Say, shall I choose you some Prussian hack
When the Uhlans** we overwhelm?
Shall I bring you a Potsdam goblet back
And the crest from a Prince's helm?

Little you'd care what I laid at your feet,
Ribbon or crest or shawl--
What if I bring you nothing, sweet,
Nor maybe come home at all?
Ah, but you'll know, Brave Heart, you'll know
Two things I'll have kept to send:
Mine honour for which you bade me go
And my love--my love to the end.
                            --Robert Ernest Vernède

At its start light-hearted and optimistic, the poem imagines not only a British victory, but a soldier’s homecoming as he brings gifts and spoils of war.  As the poem continues, the soldier-husband’s gifts become increasingly extravagant and absurd.  The list begins with a ribbon for his dear wife’s hair, and then goes on to detail a shawl from Berlin (indicating that the German capital city has been taken by the British), a horse from the Prussian cavalry, a priceless crystal goblet crafted in Potsdam (where glassware was fashioned for the Prussian royal household), and finally an elaborate gilded crest from the helmet of the German crown prince himself. 

Tender and whimsical, Vernède acknowledges that his wife would little care what material gifts he brings her.  But then the poem turns serious as the writer imagines a wholly different and much more likely future: what if he never returns home, but instead is killed in battle?  The final four lines are intended to reassure his wife, even as he addresses her as “Brave Heart.”  If her husband is killed in battle, she can take comfort in knowing that his honour and his love for her will remain long after his death. 

We will probably never know if Carol Vernède found the poem amusing or of comfort, but Robert Vernède did not return to their home and gardens in Standon, Hertfordshire.  In his last letter to his wife, written on Easter Sunday of 1917, the day before he was killed, Robert Vernède closed with these lines: “I think it will be summer soon, and perhaps the war will end this year and I shall see my Pretty One again.”

Remembering Vernède, his close friend F.G. Salter said, “He loved life, with a solid, English love ; he loved his garden, his art, his friends ; above all, he loved the wife who for all the years since their betrothal had been the inspirer and encourager of everything he did, and who was so in this decision also, and to the end.  He very greatly desired to come back alive after the war.  But it seemed to him that such a desire was, for the present, simply irrelevant."

Vernède’s poems were published posthumously in 1917, and in the introduction to the slim volume, Edmund Gosse writes, “The circumstances of his death repeat the story of a thousand such events in this prodigious war. Vernède was in charge of his platoon on the advance, and was in front with a couple of his men when they suddenly came upon a concealed enemy machine gun. He was hit, and it was immediately seen that the wound was serious. His men carried him back alive to the aid station, but he died upon the further journey. He was buried in the French cemetery at Lechelle.*** His friend Captain F. E. Spurling put up a cross and planted around it a large bowl of daffodil bulbs which had been the joy of the poet when they flowered in the company mess. They now, in their long sleep, watch over his rest.”  Vernède would have appreciated the flowers; his last words were “Send my love to my wife.” 

Robert E. Vernede

*From Edmund Gosse’s introduction to Vernède’s posthumously published book of poetry, War Poems and Other Verses.
** British term for German cavalry units
*** His remains were moved during burial concentrations, and he now rests at Lebucquiere Communal Cemetery Extension