Flanders. Part 6

The CANAL BANK, YPRES,  6 October, 1917

I am right in the thick of it again, in this historic place which I shall describe some time. When I think of the glorious weather, sunlight shimmering in a molten sky and slow winds just breathing over the wilderness of shell-holes, it seems so hard throwing it all aside for an uncertain end. Yet it must be done. Perhaps Fate may have some kindness in store for me. Last night I had a strangely poignant dream : I was lying in hospital, trying madly to move my legs, both tied down in splints, and biting my lips to overcome pain coming from the right groin. A comfortable wound might be the outcome of this premonition. Let us hope so: then I can see again the Old Country I. had given up for lost, hear the old voices, look at the friendly glad faces.

ZEGGERSKAPPELL, 5 October, 1917

White Heather appealed to me, even if it were only that it described life in Glasgow, the lonely life of lodgings, removed from the crowd and yet in it where one met it by the causeways and brushed past it in the walk, foreign to its aims and utterances and not entirely at union with self. Even if at that time there were a thousand imaginings, and one could not envisage a clear path to the fountain-head through a maze of divergent paths which promised as many gracious things, the sense lay definite that development was in some one of them. Apprenticeship to a spirit-education of which nature approved ! Grey street, dark skies, streaming window-panes, yellow fog on river and dock, desolation of dreary back-courts and square tenements, sooty glimpses of trees in a melancholy park, chimney-stacks lining a muddy oil-flecked canal, glow of ironworks through a smoky night – these played their part in evolving a definite ideal of beauty, the intense beauty which is distilled from ugliness. Romance was an intimate, Conrad appeared the king of writers – and his world was real. Good sense concurred, the spirit thrilled in sympathy, and the heedless natural striving gleamed rosy beside the ultimate reward. Where is it gone, the glory and the dream ?

Even if, like De Quincey, one took an opiate to still the bitter inner questioning, contented oneself with vision-worlds,  dreammen and – women, had unreal adventures in an obscure world of faery, toyed with delicate tormented world-pictures. sketched by a spirit, the voice cries more insistently until resolution pales and one can hear an echo where is the origin of endeavour, where its current, whence its consummation?  There is no answer: the high walls form a cul-de-sac where no opening appears to the green earth and blue skies of freedom.

Insufficiency is the final misery. Intellect sleeps.  The brain descends to sordid trivialities. All the fine upliftings and impulsive happinesses darken down to despair, freedom becomes depression, and life resumes itself in existence, a bestial thing. Categories are decided by the length of the ears, not by quickness or nervous vitality of intelligence. The day’s work becomes a ghastly mockery of thinking about the morrow’s rations, and sleep is a futile struggle with implacable parasites.

You might think this stuff bitter as gall, of the melancholy mad type. The weather has given its miserable quota : constant showers from stormy skies veined with orange at the horizon, muddy lanes and a dreary swish of wind through hedges breathe of an autumn already well-advanced. Even the merriest must feel its darkness creeping through his armour ; for it is insistent, this claim of a world shedding the glory of a past joyous colour, never certain of a calm, serenely splendid day, never wholly at ease in a cloud.

There is a curious self-containedness in the life of a French peasant. Even the farmstock fraternise in a strange way. Yesterday the good wife (who waddles along as if cut through at the waist, bust and hips wobbling in different directions), brought in a cartful of dried bean-stuff. It seemed to be a delicacy, for first a brown cow slipped up and tore off a mouthful, then a calf, then an old grey mare and foal, until the cart was completely surrounded and the old wife lost to view. Quite a fine picture!- cows, horses, a loquacious sow, infinity of white hens, ducks, and, bringing up the rear, a troop of half- grown turkeys.

Last night, at orange afterglow, I saw a wonderfully quiet harmony of greys united in an ancient thatched, mud-walled farmhouse standing above its own reflection in a sheltered pond. Willows bent over the smooth water to shade the more vivid gleam of moss and mould, tracing an arabesque of branch and leaf across the luminous darkness. And the open patches of light, meeting the evening sky, brought gold of a radiant beauty down to their very heart, gold more radiant than had ever appeared to Midas in dream, or Botticelli designing an aureole round a Madonna’s head. I could have made a perfect picture drawn wistfully and brushed in colour dreamy enough to visualise that silent beauty : but nothing surely could ever give that repose, that soul-calming sleep of gracious colour, which came like a cooling hand and touched to a peace eternal in scope. An impression, almost a step in history, a mode of comparison, when violence sickens and shock darkens perception !

There are  some scenes whose very  appearance tells of a long history, of a succession of events sometimes important and epoch-making in a vanished era, but hallowed now by time to a restful memory. That old house, darkened in the subdued light so that all its imperfections were lost in harmony, symbolised a generation of quiet unambitious endeavour, held a whole century of patient, humble peasants, content with the day’s work and bringing their vague emotions, unexpressed desires, to the massive chapel just visible beyond the misty woods. If, to come closer to the understanding of the values of life, the people flung aside their long inculcated worship of the Virgin, dismounted those painted porcelain Madonnas fixed to their walls or in lonely shrines by the wayside, desired a symbol more in unison with their life, they could bend their head before that silent beauty of house and water ; contented with the thought that at the last their life would receive a wondering consummation, their vague poetry a definite utterance, and their patient endeavour something of that eternal beauty which hovers over the world.

How quaint their actions are ! Perched crazily on a wooden barrow, the peasant is drawn by a lethargic horse over a stubblefield, bobbing up and down like a cork on a fishing-line. The first time I saw one of the type I could not help laughing at the odd figure bumping and dancing over the sods. Then, to saw a tree-trunk, they place it on two high trestles, lay a plank on one side, and one man above, one beneath, each with a handle of the saw, cut it into logs. A threshing-mill is worked by a horse trying to walk up a moving gangway, moved by his hoofs in their attempt to go forward. The old-time flail still serves to separate the chaff from the seed, a long pole with a shorter one hinged to it. Cows, instead of being brought into a byre, are milked outside in the fashion Hardy describes. The top bar of a gate consists of a whole tree-trunk with most of its roots attached balanced on a pole. In the smithy a handful of coke appears quite sufficient to warm a cart-wheel rim red-hot, the method being to cover the heated part with chaff, revolve the rim on a kind of stone table until the whole round is smoking. Cows, sheep, goats, and even horses are tethered and eat their circular patch.

I could write in this way for a long time, write beneath the windmill whose arms are rising and falling dizzily to a soft wind while the meal-dust flies out of the open door. The farmer is digging up his mangelwurzels just in front of me, and a last faint gleam lies along the dark silhouette of nose and mouth.

I began the letter downcast, but now I feel quite cheerful on the subject. Nothing brings up the tone more quickly than a relieving utterance of atrabile. The air smacks fresher now, and there dwells a refreshing tang in the breeze. I feel the loss of Forest Folk : it reminded me of Furse’s picture Diana of the Uplands it had a good beginning, plenty of strong, wild colouring.

I wish I could tell where I was last month. If I come through the war, I’ll be able to look on one adventure as one of the most romantic that could ever have happened to me. Coming down from the trenches, a party of three of us, dog-tired, took refuge under the tower of a great building whose name is one of the most famous of the war. There, a brilliant morning of flitting sunshine, we slept, disturbed only by the deep rumbling echoes in the superb masonry which the heaviest shell could not destroy. Among those battered ruins a lamp still swung in the close, with slender framework intact, without glass, a memory of cloistral peace. On the wall facing the street hung two gargoyles grinning with a twisted kind of animation, testifying to the living power of the man who sculptured them from the harsh stone. All the others were destroyed.

At present danger is approaching again. From now onwards I shall have need of all your hopes and desires, even prayers. That  passed, I shall have some sure prospect of coming home. I found in a “Notizenbuch”,  taken from a German greatcoat, the diary of one of those earnest painstaking village schoolmasters, whose work remains their pride and whole centre of life, whose ideals set a glory round their memory. It seems such a tragedy that a man like that should be forced to fight at all. But that is the tragedy for all of us.