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Monday, August 13, 2018

By the Canal in Flanders

Time seems to move differently during war.  For some, time slows to a crawl while living in the trenches; for others, the anxious tension of waiting for news from the front lines seems to stretch each second into days. Nothing seems to happen – until unimaginable things suddenly occur in a rush and a blur. 

In the third year of the war, a British soldier serving with the Royal Engineers wrote comically of his despair at being constantly hurried and harried, rushed and pushed. “By the Canal in Flanders” was published in Punch in 1917* and selected for inclusion in Poems from Punch 1909-1920.** The Preface to the collection explains that the poems “are brought together to represent a larger number which amid much delightful but, as is fitting, ephemeral verse, serve the permanent interest of the Comic Spirit.” The Preface continues, defining comedy as “life’s victory…. particularly in the front we present to circumstances or events that people quite unmoved by the Comic Spirit might find anything but attractive, except as an occasion for martyrdom or some such hardening of mind.”††

The poem’s author, Captain Henry Norman Davey, arrived in France with the Royal Engineers in September of 1915 and served in France and Flanders until a prolonged period of ill-health sent him back to England in June of 1918.

By the Canal in Flanders  

By the canal in Flanders I watched a barge’s prow
Creep slowly past the poplar-trees; and there I made a vow
That when these wars are over and I am home at last
However much I travel I shall not travel fast.
Canal in Flanders
Horses and cars and yachts and planes: I’ve no more use for such:
For in three years of war’s alarms I’ve hurried far too much;
And now I dream of something sure, silent and slow and large;
So when the War is over—why, I mean to buy a barge.

A gilded barge I’ll surely have, the same as Egypt’s Queen,
And it will be the finest barge that ever you have seen;
With polished mast of stout pitch pine, tipped with a ball of gold,
And two green trees in two white tubs placed just abaft the hold.

So when past Pangbourne’s verdant meads, by Cliveden’s mossy stems,
You see a barge all white-and-gold come gliding down the Thames,
With tow-rope spun from coloured silks and snow-white horses three,
Which stop beside your river house—you’ll know the bargee’s me.
Book of Hours c. 1540
I’ll moor my craft beside your lawn; so up and make good cheer!
Pluck me your greenest salads! Draw me your coolest beer!
For I intend to lunch with you and talk an hour or more
Of how we used to hustle in the good old days of war.
            —Norman Davey

The wonderfully farcical vision of a gilded barge draped in silks and pulled by snow-white horses contrasts strongly with the mud, filth, and grime of war.  Davey seems to have struggled as a soldier, writing in one of his poems, “for me the ways of war are hard— / An artist and a scholar and a bard.” In Desiderium, MCMXV-MCMXVIII, his volume of poetry published 1920, Davey includes a lengthy poem (“Oi bibliofiloi”) describing the thrill he finds in browsing the dusty bookshops of Charing Cross Road in search of bibliophile treasures.  The last lines (it runs on for 218 lines!) are worth citing, as they show a man who longs for nothing more than to return to the slow companionship of his books, if ever the war should end.  Addressing a friend who has remained in England, Davey writes about his love of books in a way that touches the heart of bibliophiles today:   

Ah! Christie, when these woeful wars will cease,
(If cease they ever will) and patient Peace
Permits poor scholars to depart once more
Norman Davey
Into the parts they love, out of the roar
And hurry of this world which is not theirs;
Come down with me where San Vitale bears
Her glory to the blue Italian skies;
And you and I with understanding eyes
Shall loiter in her aisles and sculptured crypts
Or search the town for painted manuscripts. 
But this is all a dream; and now my books
Are lonely in their shelves, and no one looks
To see what company are gathered there.
Old friend, I pray you, let it be your care
To go into my library and pay
That duty that I owe to friends who stay
So patient in their shelves for my return.
Take them and study them; I know they yearn
For human friendship in the silent hours;
Take them and talk to them—true friend of ours—
And tell them when this calamity
Has passed away, if happily see
My own place once again; no force shall tear
Me from their fellowship; and that I swear,
By all the gods, never again to brook
Aught that shall part the scholar from his book. 

After the war, Davey gave up engineering and pursued a career as a writer. His best-known work is the novel The Pilgrim of a Smile (1921), described in his obituary as one of his “light books well known in their day.”
* Norman Davey, “By the Canal in Flanders,” Punch, 5 Sept. 1917.
** Poems from Punch 1909-1920, Macmillan & Co, 1922, pp. 223-225.
W.B. Drayton Henderson, “Preface,” Poems from Punch 1909-1920, Macmillan & Co, 1922, p. v.
†† Henderson, “Preface,” pp. xivxv.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Poetry, an Essential War Industry

In November of 1918, America’s Poetry magazine proclaimed, “poetry is an essential industry.” The magazine’s founder, Harriet Monroe, explained:
            The story, as it comes to us—by hearsay evidence which we can not vouch for—runs thus: Mr. Conrad Aiken, being included in the recent military registration somewhere in Boston or near it, showed his undeniable fighting spirit by fighting for his art—he demanded fourth-class registration not on the usual easy terms (for he might have claimed exemption because of having a family to support) but on the ground that he was a poet and that poetry is an essential industry.  The claim, being novel, was referred to Washington, and by some ultimate Solomon, there sitting in judgment, was sustained, being affirmed and decreed and locked and bolted under all the sacred seals of law.
            Thus the art owes to Mr. Aiken a new and important service, much more hazardous than his various books—though any book of verse is indeed a heroic hazard!—or his high-spirited, bristlingly militant, critical articles.  The art owes to him what it has never before, so far as we can remember, received in this country—official recognition, a definite legal status. POETRY, as the organ of the art which Mr. Aiken for the last six or eight years has proudly served and loyally fought for, extends to him its cordial thanks and congratulations.  May he live long to write and fight under the banner of the muse!*

Although Aiken did not join the military, he wrote of the war.  Like many of his poems, “1915: The Trenches” is organized in what Aiken described as symphonic movements.  Excerpts from sections III, IV, VI, and VII appear below; the poem in its entirety can be read online in Nocturne of Remembered Spring, pp. 30 – 38.

1915: The Trenches

… We are standing somewhere between earth and stars,
Not knowing if we are alive or dead ...
All night long it is so,
All night long we hear the guns, and do not know
If the word will come to charge to-day.
Spring in the Trenches by Paul Nash
 © IWM (ART 1154)

It will be like that other charge--
We will climb out and run
Yelling like madmen in the sun
Running stiffly on the scorched dust
Hardly hearing our voices
Running after the man who points with his hand
At a certain shattered tree,
Running through sheets of fire like idiots,
Sometimes falling, sometimes rising.
I will not remember, then,
How I walked by a hedge of wild roses,
And shook the dew off, with my sleeve,
I will not remember
The shape of my sweetheart's mouth, but with other things
Ringing like anvils in my brain
I will run, I will die, I will forget.
I will hear nothing, and forget ...
I will remember that we are savage men,
Motherless men who have no past,
Nothing of beauty to call to mind
No tenderness to stay our hands ...**

The Dead Stretcher Bearer by Gilbert Rogers
©IWM ART3688
Out there, in the moonlight,
How still in the grass they lie,
Those who panted beside us, or stumbled before us,
Those who yelled like madmen and ran at the sun,
Flinging their guns before them.
One of them stares all day at the sky
As if he had seen some strange thing there,
One of them tightly holds his gun
As if he dreaded a danger there,
One of them stoops above his friend,
By moon and sun we see him there….

All night long, all night long,
We see them and do not remember them,
We hear the terrible sounds of guns,
We see the white rays darting and darting,
We are beaten down and crawl to our feet,
We wipe the dirt from mouths and eyes,
Dust-coloured animals creeping in dust,
Animals stupefied by sound;
We are beaten down, and some of us rise,
And some become a part of the ground,
But what do we care? We never knew them,
Or if we did it was long ago ...
Night will end in a year or so,
We look at each other as if to say,
Across the void of time between us,
'Will the word come to-day?'
            —Conrad Aiken

In order to fight, one must forget. Soldiers must forget happy memories of their pasts as well as the horrific sight of their comrades’ bodies lying unburied between the trench lines. Detached from human emotions and suspended in time, they can only wait for the order to charge and perhaps to die.

An excerpt from Siegfried Sassoon’s diary written June 15, 1918 seems to echo the ideas of Aiken’s poem:
For several weeks I hardly thought of anything but the Company. Now that their training is coming to an end I’ve been easing off a bit; have allowed myself to enjoy books. The result is that I immediately lose my grip on soldiering, and begin to find everything intolerable except my interest in the humanity of the men. One cannot be a good soldier and a good poet at the same time…
Life will be easier and simpler when we get into the line again. There one alternates between intense concentration on the business in hand and extreme exhaustion… there is no time for emotion, no place for beauty. Only grimness and cruelty and remorse…†

In January of 1919, Poetry published Aiken’s response to the "Essential Industry" article:  
Your editorial in the November issue does me too much honor.  It would have been indeed quixotically courageous of me to have asked military exemption on the ground that I was a poet—it would even more, perhaps, have been presumptuous.  That I did not do, however. It was not the real point at issue for I was already in Class II.  The question was whether under the Work-or-Fight Law the writing of poetry was to be classed as non-productive—along with billiard-marking, setting up candle-pins, and speculation in theatre tickets—and whether artists in general would have to change their occupation.  I merely submitted that poetry should not be so classed, and that it was not specifically implied in the terms of the law.  Was the consequent decision more commercial, perhaps, than idealistic in motive? Hac itur ad astr!††
* Harriet Monroe, “Poetry an Essential Industry,” Poetry, vol. 13, no. 2, p. 96.
** The ellipsis appears in the original poem.
† Siegfried Sassoon, quoted in “The Killing of Edward Brittain; Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon Write Onward and Outward,” A Century Back,, posted 15 June 2018, Accessed 1 Aug. 2018.
†† Conrad Aiken, “Mr. Aiken and the Essential Industry,” Poetry, vol. 13, no. 4, January 1919, pp. 230-231. The Latin can be translated “This is the road to the stars!”