A little problematic: Julian Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’

Machine-gun

(Colt Manufacturing Company, ‘Maxim-Vickers Machine Gun,’ Digital History 511: Theory & Practice, http://library.ccsu.edu/dighistFall16/items/show/92 : accessed 25 May, 2020)

In May 1973, during one of William Blissett’s visits to the poet David Jones, they discussed the recent special edition of Poetry Wales (Winter 1972), devoted to Jones: ‘The article on I[n]. P[arenthesis]. had the same fault as the chapter in Jon Silkin’s book [Out of Battle], more acutely because more simple-minded: it judges war writing ultimately, but solely, on its pacifistic force and outcome.’[1]

I was reminded of this by the anniversary of the death of Julian Grenfell, who died of his injuries on 26 May 1915, at the age of 27. The eldest son of Lord and Lady Desborough, educated at Eton and Balliol College, sportsman and huntsman, he published very few poems but one of them, which appeared in The Times the day after his death (along with his obituary), became hugely popular. It was called ‘Into Battle’:

The naked earth is warm with spring,
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun’s kiss glorying,
And quivers in the loving breeze;
And Life is Colour and Warmth and Light
And a striving evermore for these;
And he is dead who will not fight,
And who dies fighting has increase.

The fighting man shall from the sun
Take warmth, and life from the glowing earth;
Speed with the light-foot winds to run,
And with the trees a newer birth;
And when his fighting shall be done,
Great rest, and fulness after dearth.

All the bright company of Heaven
Hold him in their high comradeship –
The Dog-star and the Sisters Seven,
Orion’s belt and sworded hip.

The woodland trees that stand together,
They stand to him each one a friend;
They gently speak in the windy weather;
They guide to valley and ridge’s end.

The kestrel hovering by day,
And the little owls that call by night,
Bid him be swift and keen as they –
As keen of sound, as swift of sight.

The blackbird sings to him ‘Brother, brother,
If this be the last song you shall sing,
Sing well, for you will not sing another;
Brother, sing!’

In dreary doubtful waiting hours,
Before the brazen frenzy starts,
The horses show him nobler powers;
O patient eyes, courageous hearts!

And when the burning moment breaks,
And all things else are out of mind,
And Joy of Battle only takes
Him by the throat and makes him blind –

Through joy and blindness he shall know,
Not caring much to know, that still
Nor lead nor steel shall reach him so
That it be not the Destined Will.

The thundering line of battle stands,
And in the air Death moans and sings;
But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,
And Night shall fold him in soft wings.

Forty-six lines: eight rhyming quatrains, very regular apart from that line, ‘Brother, sing!’, and preceded by a sonnet. Title aside, the first six lines—romantic, sensuous, even sensual—certainly don’t prepare you for the seventh and eighth. While there are no archaisms of the ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ type, some of the uses to which capital letters are put are striking, the spelling of ‘fulness’ hints – to me – at the Shakespearean and ‘dearth’ is not that common, though it had recently occurred in Rupert Brooke’s ‘War Sonnet III – The Dead’ (‘Blow, bugles, blow! They brought us, for our dearth,/ Holiness, lacked so long, and Love, and Pain’). ‘Day’ and ‘Night’ in the final quatrain are prepared for by the owl and the kestrel (ll.23-24), which—‘Bid him be swift and keen as they’—commune directly with ‘the fighting man’, as do the trees.

Evening-Landscape-Owls

(Samuel Lucas, Evening Landscape with Owls: North Hertfordshire Museum)

Tim Kendall terms ‘Into Battle’ ‘one of the finest and most problematic poems of the War’, ‘a celebration of the Homeric “fighting man”.’[2] It is ‘problematic’ because it doesn’t fit our ideas of what a Great War poem should be. We know that there was a great deal of bad poetry published, especially in the early stages of the war, and we know the platitudes, raucous patriotism and painful pieties to be found in them. They can be safely disregarded in favour of the later biting satires on generals and their staff, the powerful indictment of waste and needless slaughter, the damning of politicians that had brought this about, the elegy for lost friends and comrades in a pointless and senseless conflict. But here is a poem that seems to have all the ‘wrong’ attitudes—or none of the ‘right’ ones—yet is consummately well-done.

Grenfell’s biographer Nicholas Mosley writes of ‘Into Battle’ that it is ‘almost unique amongst poems of the First World War in that it shows no outrage against war and yet its luminousness and serenity do not seem false. Because it is a poem about love of life in time of war, it was once much loved; later, when there was peace and life was again loved less, it was loved less too.’[3]

(Julian and his mother and brother; Julian Grenfell: from Nicholas Mosley’s Julian Grenfell, Persephone Books)

Robert Giddings remarked that Grenfell’s poem ‘is significant not because it is a great poem, but because it captures the curious rapture with which it was still possible to write about the war.’ He termed it ‘a neutral poem’ because it doesn’t concern itself with English honour or German infamy, concluding: ‘It is probable that 1915 was the last year in which such a war poem would be found acceptable by the British public.’[4]

This seems to stray into one of the myths about the Great War, that there were distinct and clear-cut phases: the naïve, ignorant and patriotic idealism of 1914-1915, followed by the shock of prolonged trench warfare and the trauma of the Somme, after which every poet wrote with bitter outrage and the reading public spurned any writer that made positive noises about the conflict. Yet the First World War, like most wars, was complex; and responses to it varied hugely and continuously and for long after its conclusion. How could it be otherwise? It’s often pointed out that Grenfell had been a professional soldier, serving in South Africa and India, and had been at the front for several months before he wrote ‘Into Battle’. Then too, far from being blissfully ignorant of the realities of war when he wrote his famous sonnets, Rupert Brooke had witnessed the bloody retreat from Antwerp—’That was like Hell, a Dantesque Hell, terrible. But there—and later—I saw what was a truer Hell. Hundreds of thousands of refugees’.[5]

In his anthology of Great War poetry, Jon Silkin included ‘Into Battle’ as one of a necessary sample of ‘famous’ poems, adding that his anthology offered ‘mostly what the editor prefers and a little of what he believes other people, a great many other people, have liked, even loved, as they responded to the horror and pity of war.’ Some poems were marked with an asterisk to indicate that they were part of that ‘little’: one of those starred was Grenfell’s.[6] In Out of Battle, Silkin wrote that, ‘Although the popularity of “Into Battle” was due to its coincidence with patriot fervour, it is not properly speaking a “war poem” but a release in verse of Grenfell’s predatoriness’, though he adds that war ‘is central for the enactment of that predatoriness’.[7]

Perhaps Grenfell’s poem is disturbing in part because while it is a ‘war poem’ it is not about this war. It doesn’t damn the war he’s taking part in—it barely mentions it—and seems to appropriate the natural world as the intimate companion of the fighting man; worse, in many ways, it is presented as a private and wholly personal affair. Elizabeth Vandiver writes that ‘Grenfell’s “fighting man” is not concerned with duty or with the cause of freedom (or anything else); indeed, one of the most notable aspects of “Into Battle” is its complete omission of any mention of a particular enemy. For Grenfell, the enemy is necessary only to provide the setting in which a warrior proves his prowess.’[8] And elsewhere she states that, for Grenfell, ‘the point was the Homeric aristeia (an individual warrior’s moment of outstanding glory) in its own right; the war merely provided a context in which the warrior could flourish.’[9]

David-Jones.Spectator

(David Jones via The Spectator)

I find that pretty convincing – and reminiscent of the ways in which David Jones’s In Parenthesis (1937) troubled some critics: his setting the First World War in a larger historical context, the allusions to Agincourt and Malory, and Dai Greatcoat as the archetypal soldier rather than dwelling on the unprecedented particularities of this war. In his preface, Jones wrote:

for I think the day by day in the Waste Land, the sudden violences and the long stillnesses, the sharp contours and unformed voids of that mysterious existence, profoundly affected the imaginations of those who suffered it. It was a place of enchantment. It is perhaps best described in Malory, book iv, chapter 15—that landscape spoke “with a grimly voice” [ . . . ] I suppose at no time did one so much live with a consciousness of the past, the very remote and the more immediate and trivial past, both superficially and more subtly.[10]

In June 1909, Ford Madox Ford’s English Review published Ezra Pound’s ‘Sestina: Altaforte’ (‘The Bloody Sestina’), his Bertrans de Born eager for combat and bloodshed:

I have no life save when the swords clash.
But ah! when I see the standards gold, vair, purple, opposing
And the broad fields beneath them turn crimson,
Then howl I my heart nigh mad with rejoicing.[11]

Bertrans too aligns his warlike self with the natural world: ‘hot summer’, ‘winds shriek through the clouds’, ‘I love to see the sun rise blood-crimson’. Nor is he particularly welcoming towards those who will not fight: ‘The man who fears war and squats opposing/ My words for stour, hath no blood of crimson/ But is fit only to rot in womanish peace’.

In later reprints of The Spirit of Romance, Pound added a footnote to his pages describing the ‘war songs’ of Bertrans: ‘This kind of thing was much more impressive before 1914 than it has been since 1920.’[12]

A perfectly reasonable comment, enabled by long retrospect, by survival. Grenfell’s poem was written and published in 1915. It’s often assumed that, if he and Rupert Brooke had lived through the war, they would have manifested radically different attitudes towards it. It’s quite possible, even likely ­– but not certain. Would Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and T. E. Hulme have written quite differently had they survived? Would Gaudier-Brzeska have accepted commissions for small sculptures of family pets to make ends meet? If Antonio Sant’Elia had lived to complete architectural projects, would they have looked like his drawings or utterly different?

Like a lot of counterfactual questions, variably interesting and wholly unanswerable in any definitive sense. ‘Into Battle’ is an impressive—if ‘problematic’—poem, expressive of the time in which it was written and, crucially, of the sensibility, the personal and familial history, the character of the poet. In a witty—and perhaps more familiar—take on the war, Grenfell also wrote ‘Prayer for Those on the Staff’: ‘The Staff is working with its brains,/ While we are sitting in the trench,/ The Staff the universe ordains/ (Subject to Thee and General French).’ Not problematic at all.

 

 

Notes

[1] William Blissett, The Long Conversation: A Memoir of David Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 119.

[2] Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology, edited by Tim Kendall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 108.

[3] Nicholas Mosley, Julian Grenfell: His life and the times of his death, 1888-1915 (London: Persephone Books, 1999), 383.

[4] Robert Giddings, The War Poets (London: Bloomsbury, 2000), 47, 49, 50.

[5] To Leonard Bacon, 11 November 1914, The Letters of Rupert Brooke, edited by Sir Geoffrey Keynes (London: Faber and Faber, 1968), 632.

[6] Jon Silkin, ‘Introduction’ to The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, second edition (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 76.

[7] Jon Silkin, Out of Battle: The Poetry of the Great War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 72.

[8] Elizabeth Vandiver, Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 186-187.

[9] Elizabeth Vandiver, ‘Early Poets of the First World War’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Poetry of the First World War, edited by Santanu Das (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 76.

[10] David Jones, In Parenthesis (1937; London: Faber, 1963), x-xi. In April 1915, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, in the trenches, wrote to Pound that some of the poems in Cathay, a thousand or more years old, ‘are so appropriate to our case’: Ezra Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir (1916; New York: New Directions, 1974), 68.

[11] English Review, II, iii (June 1909), 419-420; reprinted in Pound’s Exultations (1909).

[12] Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance (1910; New York: New Directions, 1968), 48fn.

 

2 thoughts on “A little problematic: Julian Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s