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 ideals, 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 the 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.

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