The Somme. Part 7

HERMIES,  16 August, 1917

The Literary Supplement was to me as a warmth-giving tonic, especially when the thought comes that perhaps the old life of ruminating among books and among past pictures, memorials of past centuries, will be difficult of reattainment, and that this may be one of the means of keeping in touch and not entirely forgetting that peculiar beauty or favour of a more cultured world. It seems so strange writing thus in this desolation. Even now, in the open, away from the heavy atmosphere of the dug-out, a rat scampers across the path and disappears beneath a sheet of corrugated-iron.

The Army does not study individualities, but it has indulged a fondness of mine. We have a unique opportunity of viewing sunrise and sunset in the trenches owing to the decree that men must stand-to at day-break and nightfall. Perhaps without this one would forget or lack resolution to study the sky on one’s own initiative. I have felt sometimes that there was nothing really worth while, and lethargy overtook me when one of those far-flung sunsets flaming over the hill reminded me that I had something more to live for than sleep in a muddy trench, that the everlasting beauty was still alive, even when least suspected.

Dante, the all-adaptable, gives his utterance : – 

Ciò chè vedeste fu, perche non scuse

D’aprir lo core all’ acqua della pace

Chè dall’ eterno fonte son diffuse.

A noble thought!

Laying a broad tapestry of happiness in resignation visualised for ever, that quiet unaffected subservience of self to the need for spiritual calm, the tone of a single endeavour ringing clear through trial. The gloomiest perspectives have that silver line running through them, and tracing a path from their desolation to the broader fields of an Elysian beauty, Arcady become spiritualized, and its shepherds and shepherdesses grown into earnest humans. I think it the finest religion of all, that, even on the grey battlefield, the great wings are swooping and the great heart absorbing its horror into beauty, touching the heart and soul with its newfound grace and teaching them to throw aside the sordid to concentrate on the essential. Not religion de-Christianized, but morality fined down to something more radiant than religion.

I have wandered somewhat from the first intention, of describing cloud-life viewed at rise and fall. Even this morning the sun has stolen like a lance along the ridges and beneath the trees, cutting adrift the white mist hanging over them, and sprinkling the lower sky with filmy blue. The clouds mount above it in a beautiful mackerel ; their wings are broadened for flight, pearl-lights dwelling in the hollows and opal shadows, like an army of angels fleeing from night to day. I have never seen such glorious vistas of sunset or sunrise as in this country. Its flatness gathers up everything to the world overhead and adds a great depth and shimmering distance to the gold, rose, and green, touching them finely to delicate gleam. Sunrise remains a definite beauty of glowing colour wandering over the sea of air through Clouds – not a memory called from books and accepted for fashion’s sake.

Strange that this should be the whole of life, yet how satisfying it is ! The mind or memory cannot turn its full face to the materials of war and forget all else : once a dug-out is made or a trench hollowed out, then they are as if they had never been. As in an obstacle race, buoyant hope leaps over them all and stays only at the consummation, seeing the end even through a wilderness of obstructions. That is my idea perhaps there exists some who can find a lifetime’s vocation in shouldering duckboards, coils of barbed wire, sheets of iron, etc.; cul-de-sac souls who are content with little, and are never really happy. This philosophy can be defined in the Psalmist’s words “He who regardeth the clouds shall not sow”.

We are busy cutting a road for transport between two high banks.  To-day the “pleinairiste” would be delighted with the ensemble: sun glistening on dry earth-heaps, and men, recumbent, shading eyes from the glare.  There are only two colours, light purple and dark blue-grey ; the purple grows warm and luminous, living as a reflection on water, and the shadowed faces shine nevertheless transparently, with a mat light along nose and eyes, just sketching the features. Laura Knight could make a delightful tableau, just a touch here and there to raise the figures of men and tools above the prevailing light and suggest overwhelming floods of shimmering colour, burning and Even dark blazing whitely in the sun. objects – boots or equipment – are bathed in the luminance and lose contrast to become merged in the whole. The heat is so great that no real light and shadow remain, just a difference of form, not of colour, shadows clearly projected but not salient. The sky comes forward over the hill, not the infinite azure sea, where clouds float at a vast distance, but a fine blue screen with white patches of cumuli rising slowly to the zenith.

Strange flies, born of the sun, flit along the path ; huge bees whizz past uncannily;  butterflies rise and settle again on the hot clay ; there is a multitude of greenflies and bluebottles buzzing noisily in the shadows. There dwells a fineness in it all, a sultry beauty of contour untouched by association. Just before me a figure sits in the doorway, silhouetted against the purplish glare, every line of him clean, sharp, and beautiful, a reflected silver on cheek and nose, bent arm and knee. Just a fine cameo of grey colour drawn in arabesque of perfect line.