Wednesday, September 7, 2016

An early morning love song

Man in Trench, William Orpen
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 3030)

“But I think that, in these sad days and years, we have got to believe in a Heaven….”
                        --Ford Madox Hueffer, 1918 (“Preface,” On Heaven and Other Poems). 

On August 23, 1916, Ford Madox Hueffer (who would in 1919 change his name to Ford Madox Ford, disavowing his German father’s surname, because it was, well, too German) wrote a letter home.  He described his experience of the Western Front as “a dreamy sort of life in a grey green country & even the shells as they set out on their long journeys seem tired.  It is rather curious, the extra senses one develops here. I sit writing in the twilight &, even as I write, I hear the shells whine.”

Two weeks later, on September 7, 1916, the 42-year-old British 2nd lieutenant wrote the poem “Albade.” The title refers to an early morning love song, specifically a love ballad sung from a window or doorway to a sleeping woman.     

France, 1916: Image ©Tingle Culbertson

The little girls are singing, "Rin! Ron! Rin!"
The matin bell is ringing "Din! Don! Din!"
Thirty little girls, while it rains and shrapnel skirls
By the playground where the chapel bells are ringing. 

The stout old nuns are walking,
Dance, little girls, beneath the din!
The four-point-ones are talking
Form up, little girls, the school is in!
Seven stout old nuns and fourteen naval guns
All around the playground go on talking. 

Dirty Day in Flanders, David Baxter
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 3245)
And, my darling, you are getting out of bed
Where the seven angels watched around your head,
With no shrapnel and no Huns
And no nuns or four-point-ones…
Getting up to catch the train,
Coming back to tea again
When the Angelus is sounding to the plain
And the statue shells are coming from the plain
And the little girls have trotted home again
In the rain…

Darling, darling, say one funny prayer again
For your true love who is waking in the rain. 
--The Salient, 7/9/16

The poem plays with sound, inviting readers to listen to the absurdities of war. Rain and shrapnel skirl above the chatter of German artillery fire, while civilians desperately strive for normalcy. As the four-point-one guns boom in the distance (four-point one is British slang used to refer to the 10.5 cm German Feldhaubitze guns that fired 4-inch shells a distance of nearly 4 miles), Belgium nuns admonish young school girls, “Dance, little girls, beneath the din!” Seven stout nuns raise their voices to be heard above the roar of fourteen navel guns, encouraging the children to ignore the war that supplies the booming background music of their playground recess.  Adding to the cacophony, church bells call the faithful to the service of Angelus, and gun fire crackles from the field. 

And yet across the Channel in England, a woman (the poet’s “darling”), quietly wakes to a peaceful morning, “With no shrapnel, and no Huns/ And no nuns or four-point-ones.” As shells drop on the Western Front, this beloved Englishwoman returns from her errands to take a tranquil break for tea. 

The poem offers readers a curious grouping: celibate religious women, young school girls, German gunners, a sheltered Englishwoman, and a soldier in the trenches who wakes to rain and begs for prayer.  Despite their differences, all share one thing in common: a deep and heart-felt desire to survive the war. 
Ford Madox Hueffer/Ford

In the preface to his war poetry collection (1918), Hueffer/Ford wrote,

I know at least that I would not keep on going if I did not feel that Heaven will be something like Rumpelmayer's tea shop, with the nice boys in khaki, with the haze and glimmer of the bright buttons, and the nice girls in the fashions appropriate to the day, and the little orchestra playing,“Let the Great Big World. . . ."  For our dead wanted so badly their leave in a Blighty, which would have been like that — they wanted it so badly that they must have it. And they must have just that. For haven't we Infantry all seen that sort of shimmer and shine and heard the rustling and the music through all the turmoil and the mire and the horror ? . . . And dying so, those images assuredly are the last things that our eyes shall see : that imagination is stronger than death. For we must have some such Heaven to make up for the deep mud and the bitter weather and the long lasting fears and the cruel hunger for light, for graciousness and for grace!....

Second Lieutenant Hueffer/Ford did survive the war. His novels The Good Soldier and Parade’s End are recognized as some of the finest fictional accounts of the First World War.  His war poetry, however, has been largely forgotten.*

*An excerpt from Hueffer/Ford's poem "Footsloggers" appeared earlier on this blog.    

No comments:

Post a Comment