Flanders. Part 2

COURCELLES-LE-COMTE, 2 September, 1917

One can never decide definitely about anything there : there is no time, even for decent thinking ; always on the move should be our war-cry. I have seen a vast chunk of France now and I don’t feel inclined to enthuse about its beauty, the same monotony of streamless plains. A new brand of nostalgia enters the system : one longs for a purling brook, a clear lake, and a whole village. I have seen enough ruins to send our feather-brained sentimentalists into the last stages of delirium.

I am beginning to overcome the lice nuisance. This week I had a slight dose of influenza, but got over it without after-effects. Too close to the ground ! I wonder how the poor idealist would look, picturing a starry world of imagery across the roof of a dug-out.

How delicious it would be to have a crisp, clean walk across-country and get rid of the rubbish in the system ! A breath of the pure air about Tinto would be worth an infinity of lime-juice drinks, but then, Tinto has faded away back into Elysium, and the wanderer would have to sprout wings to reach his desire.

A treasure, the Mirror of the Sea ! Did you notice Conrad’s description of the West Wind ? Fine ! I read it with as much deliberate pleasure as a connoisseur tasting good wine. Not the swift piling-up of heavy imagery, and words to a powerful conclusion, as in Ruskin, but a nice completion of pictures to form one picture. It reminded me of a slow, quiet trickle of water through fern to a fall on rotten leaves, drop by drop, delicately musical. I like good English at all times (our padre’s designation of some men being “in love with avoirdupois”), but when dished out so delicately and richly, just to suit a cloyed palate, it becomes more luscious than a feast of peaches. I have no more to say on that subject at present ; don’t want to get muddled up with my own conceits, like a belated Euphuist.

For a perfect idea of a French farm-house in our district I would like you to look at L’Hermitte’s Pay-Day. Just now I am reading Vernon Lee’s In Praise of Old Houses (Longmans, 1892), found in the padre’s reading-room.  The Epicurean idea is the best make the most of a good thing when you have it and let the future go to the devil. In fact, a Stoic-Epicurean would have a glorious time just now, and the old Cynic antagonist fill the trenches to every one’s satisfaction ; but the doubt arises, would he do for fighting ? Too canny, perhaps oo bald in his perception of facts. The barbarian is the darkest fighter after all: he goes right at it, sinks his teeth in an opponent’s throat or get his own jugular severed.

The moderns do not worship the man of action as much as the man of ostentation. I have heard some of our men telling how such and such a man does a lot without saying much : such men fulfil the latter qualification to the letter, but the doing lies in a very remote future. If, like Wells’s hero, they sit in profile like saints cut in alabaster, they have every chance of getting a real statue erected. “To the Memory of _____ for Conspicuous Bravery” is not so bad a heading after all, though our plain common-sense English has not the sonorous weight of “Hier ruht Unteroffizier Elble, gefallen für Vaterland”. 

I noticed a remark by Vernon Lee, quoting someone, “That the action of time makes man’s works into natural objects”.  I only wish it were really true; then squalor of ruins and sordidness of decay would become a thing of beauty, a base for the fine flower and the stately tree, for the waving grass and an infinity of happy life, taking up existence and passing into oblivion in a quietness of natural function.

The village where we stay illustrates the opposite of that remark. The country, as far as eye can see, is bare except for a tree or two dotted along the roads. All the winds of heaven touch it, for now it lies in an exposed place.  The Germans drilled holes in the trees and exploded them into long splinters, making a complete desert. Yet the old-time peasant, with that primitive instinct for shelter which gives our Army faith in the immunity of ramshackle dug-outs, chose it as a site:  the trees were higher, the foliage thicker, the coppice denser, and the grass longer. The thick leaves tempered the harsh wind (for the winds are cold here at all times):  the coppice was hollowed out, bushes and fruit trees planted – pears, apples, damsons, red currants – the grass divided into grazing ground, where the tethered cows ate their fill.  This done and the red-tiled cottages erected, religion claimed the next duty. This took concrete shape in a huge square building of chalk-slabs, painted inside with all manner of symbol and picture of the Virgin Mary. Even in ruin there is to the left of the chancel a Botticelli-like Mother and Child surrounded by a filigree of texts as “Qui prie se sauve” and sketches of incidents in the life of Jesus.

This might appear a bald narration, “House-that-Jack-built”, type, but it holds something wonderfully interesting. It came home to me last night when I saw a glorious sunset flushing the face of the sky to blood-red, too red to be painted, for the artist would have been accused of hard colour. Not a movement in the leagues of green meadow-land or in the village : trees, bushes, houses, gleamed nothing but bones – bones of a body whose soul had gone and might never be renewed.

Yet the French have begun to plough up the land with motor-tractors : just across the valley lies a long wood in front of which stretch acres of ploughed turf waving and winding to indefinite distance where the Aisne comes through a broad depression. The enemy retired with such haste that he never cut down the orchards hidden in that wood by Ablainzeville beautiful orchards, too, with rosy fruit strung as thickly as beads along the branches – damsons in thick clusters, pear-espaliers rising above a wilderness of nettles, apples of every variety from a grey, perfectly-formed russet to a soft juicy cider. I won’t forget that quiet village in its nest of tall trees, vaguely splendid as a dream high poplars by white roads, with a pale sky behind them, as if Corot had planted them there to please a fine instinct ; vaguely glimmering châteaux in the shadow of foliage, where a dog’s barking sounds at intervals;  romantic houses, where groups of “poilus” gather round a broad table, talking all day while the wine goes round. There was a churchyard, where our dead and the Germans slept side by side. I was brooding sadly before a finely executed memorial to an airman, broad wings rising from an urn of granite, when a French soldier interrupted me. He showed me the graves of French and British officers crowned with headstones executed by the Germans as a mark of veneration, and a lonely mound in a corner glorious with the tri- colour, where “poilu” had died in 1914. Perhaps when the war has finished, we won ‘t grudge to our enemies that deed of pity or that kindness. The gates to the cemetery were intact, delicately designed ironwork hanging from two white pillars.

Beyond the wood lay another village- Achiet-le-Petit – just ruined enough to be uninhabitable, and on the other side a deep valley, so steep that it became a matter of mystery why the Germans did not make a stand on the other side. Shell-holes clustered at the bottom, dried up or filled with water, where a million animalculæ swarmed:  not a tree was visible anywhere, yet such a perfect gradation of soft greys from rose to pale blue as I have never seen or even dreamt. We seemed to enter a dim world of fairy, grey warriors going into a new Valhalla, where all harshness and ruggedness had been smoothed down into quiet loveliness, and a peaceful contentment taken the place of violent action ; where the spirit could forget yearning and find its faintest desires broaden out into a graciousness as if heaven were earth, and earth a kindlier God. It was morning, morning in full summer, when we went there, and a veil of rose lay over the earth, touching a far town – Achiet-le-Grand –  to a golden mystery of wall and tree, and outlining with silver the broad road that led from it in the direction of Bapaume.

I have lost all taste for pure landscape, taken such a horror of lifeless fields, deserted roads, empty houses, where even nature has left passion to die and passivity of coming death overtakes all, that even the happiest and most peaceful beauty of flowery meadow and dark grove will seem ineffectual without a human figure moving in it. The critic could pull me up for that, a recession to the old Victorian idyll stage, when no country walk was complete without two lovers mooning about like wingless bats. The war will stop that nonsense or encourage it. I am afraid it will encourage sentimentality. Life in the trenches does not make for fine taste in the arts. Something coarser in fibre, something more obvious appeals to us, something that will strike the eye and heart with resounding effect. If a picture looks like a design for wall-paper, then it will remain so : the simple, dear things will carry off the prize. The purely romantic should receive a welcome of relief, a dispelling of past agony by a more beloved picture.

Of course, we have still the great comfort, “Truly the light is sweet and a pleasant thing it is to see the sun”.  The airs play around us and whisper promise ; colour moves in the cloud and rests in the clear sky, wakes to beauty in the morning and dies to glory at night even if the birds are silent and only swallows, magpies, and bats flit about, the grasshoppers and the crickets discourse from dawn to dawn. Small things, small sufficiencies ! Even then, we haven ‘t lost everything memory rebuilds the hearthstone on the hearth, sets up four walls again and furnishes the mansion. More beautifully, perhaps, than ever in reality!

“I remember walking thus along the bastions under the bishop’s palace at Laon, the great stone cows peering down from the belfrey above, with a sense of irrepressible familiarity and peace”.  This sentence of Vernon Lee rings strange now : I think feeling will be opposite, and the stone cows will have gone to ruin, like good things. But our army might march into it this year, and we shall see for ourselves.