Sunday, 1 September 1918
A Depot, A.P.O.S. 17, B.E.F. France
Dearest of all Friends,
There’s no sense being cross with me—you know better than most that an officer can’t give orders and then blame the soldier for carrying them out. And more’s the pity if that officer issued contradictory orders in the first place. You should have known that every word from your mouth is Holy Writ and Imperial Decree to me, and so you can’t honestly expect me to obey you when you beg me not to return to the front, and then tell R. over whiskey that you find the idea of sick leave abhorrent, that all good men ache for the front.
Hence my departure without goodbye. I believed you, when you said you’d stab me in the leg to stop my going. Had you said “head” or “heart” I’d have thought you were exaggerating, but surely Mad Jack has made non-mortal wounds before.
And yes, I included the cliché intentionally. “More’s the pity”—I recall your contempt for any pre-said sentiment, any easy phrasing. “Our job as poets is to say what has never been said before,” you said, early on, when I was still the tongue-tied faun in awe of the great Siegfried Sassoon, whom magnificent Fate had placed down the hall from me in hospital—well, Fate and the German shells that shocked me. Back then, startled at your—admittedly utterly apathetic—sufferance of my presence, I’d scurry back to my room every day to scrawl your words in my diary, convinced that I had botched them somehow, that I was too dense and damaged to grasp and hold the extent of your wisdom.
Twilight now, my train chugging through France, and Time, away from the electrified cities of the West and into prehistory, through darkened cities grim with hunger, and then through squalid rubble, all man’s progress and achievements falling away the closer one gets to the War. The world gets darker, the further I move from you.
A Boy, then, on a train platform, standing beneath its lone unbroken lamp. Images quick and sharp as rifle shots: the square set of his shoulders; the feral stubble of his face. His eyes locked for the slimmest fraction of a second with mine, but I feel no guilt or shame for what I felt. My Soul stirred. It stirred so significantly that I felt sure some other passenger on this troop train would have seen it, but they were asleep with the weariness of soldiers.
I did not feel guilty—because I saw you in him. I see you in everyone.
I can’t say I share your confidence that a superior officer won’t peer into these letters. While I myself was loath to poach upon an underling’s privacy, as was my Officerial privilege, I know others who examined every letter for offending content—hunting for smut for themselves, usually. You never told me, although I asked often, what it was like to read your men’s letters for forbidden thoughts. At the time I imagined you saw all kinds of smut and oaths, gossip and Truth. It occurs to me now, alone with the page and the invisible Censor, that there must not have been very much to see. Most men would have done your work for you. We all carry around our own Censors, George and Victoria and Mother and God frowning at every filthy thought or unkind word.
On the subject of unsayable things. There are many things that I will miss, being away from you. For the first three days I was incoherent, barely able to keep from weeping as they shuttled me through the paperwork steeplechase. Mostly my thoughts were Mundane, earthy, of the Flesh and not the Spirit. But there is the other thing, Night to the Glorious Day of your affection, the war that followed me to the hospital: my treatments with the Esteemed Doctor, who surely cannot be a barbaric monster, or our all-knowing King would never have placed him in charge of experimental medicine for the Empire’s entire war trauma treatment program, with Craiglockhart his lab. I feel we were just starting to make progress, you and I, in making sense of what happened to me in there. It caused me great pain—remembering, repeating—but great pain is often necessary to purge a greater Wrong, and to bring a greater pleasure. As you were always trying to convince me. Please, let’s continue this therapy through letters.
Please, don’t be cross with me.
Write to me. Tell me how you are. A word from you will render me impervious to bullets, invincible to gas, proud as a Jerusalem-bound Crusader with his Lady’s ribbon tied to his thigh. Much more so than this stack of unending official Paperwork, meant perhaps to be carried close to the breast, thick enough to stop bullets.
Soldiers can’t make promises, someone said. A Greek? And yet I make a promise to you, my Siegfried: I will come back to you.
Deliver my most tender regards and heart-stricken apologies to little Roderick. I think of him hourly.
Monday, 22 August 1932
Queer thing, today—strange enough to merit its own diary entry.
I found a letter from Wilfred Owen, shuffled among my darling Steenie’s interminable medical correspondence—I’ve been going through looking for anything I might have missed. Some sign, some portent of what he has become. How did he slide from darling of the smart set, London’s epicene arbiter of taste, into this black, chaotic madness? From whence these flares of temper, these wild flights of fancy?
There was nothing. Only bumbling doctors refusing to cooperate, and missives from Steenie himself—snappish and winsome by turns—consigning me to the past or dragging me back to Wilsford, desperate for reconciliation.
This other letter, though… it’s not one of Will’s old ones. I’ve never seen it before. Postmarked on his return to France, the final time. Can’t think how it got into the pile. Have I had it all these years and never known? Or some freak of the postal service? Poor Will, what did you think when it went so long unanswered? Is that why you never wrote me from the front?
Glad I found it after visiting Steenie last week. Not sure I would have handled his swinging temperament with any grace if I’d had Will’s letter on my mind.
The tubercles have subsided and all is well with Steenie’s lungs. It’s his mind that’s troubled now. One of Doctor Rivers’s old colleagues recommended a nerve hospital in Penhurst. It’s called Swaylands, a sort of dottyville for mad old aunts of the peerage. Sometimes my life seems dogged by such ironies: escaping psychiatric care only to see a lover committed.
I wrote to the director and asked about the man who will be treating Steenie; he said he’ll try to arrange a meeting.
Steenie is fragile; he needs a protector. I pray he’ll let me be that for him again. My last two visits to Wilsford have made me anxious and hopeful together. He asked for me, and while he behaved erratically at our first meeting on the second he was the sweet boy I adored in better times. Reclining amidst his beloved orchids his limbs were languid, and the sun shone through his lashes, making laddered shadows on his cheeks. He kissed me, leaving rouge behind, and called me “Kangaroo” like he used to.
If he invites me back I will not mention Will’s letter. He must be kept quiet, and it’s a trial enough already. Even if I did tell him, his jealousy would be fourteen years too late. Then again, how much difference do those years make to me? It hurt to read Will’s words more than I would have imagined.
I confess I felt a tremulous curl of the green-eyed monster’s talons at that mention of the platform Boy. Silly; he’s now as surely dead as Will, as half—two thirds!—our generation. So perhaps my jealousy is not for his Atlas shoulders, nor the way he drew Will’s eyes. Perhaps it was Will finding my old face—young then but old to me now, a memory—in his.
But how can I claim jealousy? When if confronted I would admit that no, Wilfred, fourteen years and I have never seen you in the boys that bat for Matfield, in their horseplay and the dark hair of their arms. I have not sought you in the cleft chin of a Paris bellhop, the round-nosed potboy of a Brighton pub. Not out of enmity, nor shame, but animal instinct. The basest urge: a fear of pain. I have learned the way a child learns from a hot stove—don’t touch!
Ah. Breaking my own rules. Maybe the years have mellowed me; inured to me to cliché; made me too tired to resist the easy route.
You mustn’t think I’ve spent all this time mourning. No, Will—look at me, writing to you as if you’re alive! Still, might as well go on—what could I do? If every man in England stopped, after the War, to mourn in full each friend he’d lost… hmm. Strike that parenthetical and it’s not a half bad set of lines.
I’m sick of War poems, but it seems I’m doomed to be remembered for them. The modernists, with their allusive, awkward verse… they leave no room for lyric poetry. At best, among literary types, I’m a bit of history to be trotted out on Remembrance Day. You, though… you had the right idea, dying in the trenches. No critic dares touch you, except to gild your work with praise. You’d be pleased at how you’ve done, I think; I know I am, when I can swallow sour pride. There are days I wish I hadn’t worked so hard to bring your poems into print. Your shade overshadows me, little Wilfred.
I remember at Craiglockhart, Rivers was thrilled when I took you on—smug old codger. “You’ll be good for him, Sassoon. And maybe he’ll be good for you.” Did he think you’d cure my pacifism? Or did he guess that certain comrades’ deaths had struck some deeper part I could not show him, even in those private sessions?
I wanted to help you in the way that Rivers helped me. In the way your doctor—what was his name? Time has taken it from me—never did. I still want it, with an ache like duty unfulfilled. But it was like pulling teeth to get you talking—cliché! Again!—and I was keener on pulling other parts. Pain in pursuit of greater pleasure, indeed.
Look at that—I haven’t even got to contend with the staff censor’s random checks and still I tend toward euphemism. Cautious with a new-old lover; habits slip away with years. What would you allow me in a letter? What would have raised a blush or stirred your Soul—and don’t think your superior officers wouldn’t have caught that one, if they had checked. You dog; you slipped past on a technicality.
Without distractions of the flesh perhaps I could have helped you better. If I could put this letter—and it has become a letter, hasn’t it?—in the post and send it back in time, perhaps it would guard you against the Germans’ guns, the grinding gears of the infernal war machine. Might not a friend’s words, borne close against one’s breast, lend one supernatural strength? Or, say I had received this letter in a timely fashion and replied without the aid of some machine from Wells, perhaps then I could have brought you peace, and home to England safe.
Wishing won’t earn me a reply. Still, as this did become epistolary I suppose it will want signing.
And Roderick—how long since I have heard that name! I’m sure he’d still offer you a smart salute, lieutenant. Though maybe not so quickly, these days. The years wear on us all.
Three weeks with no reply. Undoubtedly I deserve it. I’d be furious with you, were the roles reversed. The thought of gas clouding over the hazel of your eyes, of that brilliant brain of yours braving bullets—I grow angry at you merely imagining it!
You said it would be a good thing for my poetry if I went back.
This was before you cared enough to threaten to stab me in the leg, true, but there was honesty in your callousness.
But no, I’m mad, to take this personally. There’s a war on. Plenty of reasons why my letter or yours might not have made it to its destination. Paper shortages, spies everywhere, sabotage, postal trains targeted, overzealous censors—perhaps I failed to grasp the rules, and went too far in that last letter, and a court martial waits for one or both of us. Perhaps you’re bound for the front yourself. Perhaps your reply is already on its way to me, full of French words I will pretend to understand.
Perhaps another protégé has caught your eye, or taken hold of your Soul.
I jest, but also I do not.
And so: I am back. Lord help me, I love it. For all that we bemoaned the war machine, patriotism, profiteering, there is a bliss here I have found nowhere else. These boys, these men, MY men, and the bonds between us. So Greek, in almost all the senses of the world. In the hospital, I saw only the war’s stupidity, but now I see its beauty as well. The love of comrades. Of men, permitted, encouraged, even, here, and only here, to love one another. One of them loves me, I think, with something more than the dutiful soldier’s love for his superior. Efraim, he’s called—a Jew, proud, full-blooded, bespectacled, brave, but horrifically homesick. I think I remind him of a particular one of his dozen or so older brothers.
Beauty is here, and horror. Perhaps my poetry can expand to accommodate this duality; perhaps there are deeper truths to be dug up and dusted off. Perhaps we can do it together. When I make it back alive, of course. If this anxious thrumming in my blood quiets down enough to let me sleep for an hour uninterrupted, so I don’t stand dumb and dazed while the gas shells drop around me. It never leaves me, this strange Thing between rage and sadness and guilt, this Thing the Esteemed Doctor left lodged like bullets in my chest and brain.
And so. Perhaps we can proceed with the treatment, even as you punish me with silence. Silence can be therapeutic, according to the crackpot alienist your mother made you go to when you were young. He told you silence prompts us to go deeper into ourselves, although of course he was merely explaining away his own utter uselessness.
I want to describe that first visit. I want to tell you what happened, with the doctor at Craiglockhart, a different kind of crackpot. What he did to me. And if I can’t, is it fear or something worse? What did he do to me, I wonder, to strip me of the power to tell this story?
Enough for today. Efraim shivers, shaving, beside me. The blade is a poem in his hand, singing iambs with each short stroke. September heat is already giving over to September chill. “Next time I shave I’ll have to keep my shirt on,” he says to me, sheepishly, as if his magnificent gooseflesh were something to be ashamed of. Unsaid, implicit in his sentence, is the wondering whether he’ll last the two long weeks to his next shave.
Once, drunk, wet-eyed, you bemoaned your own failure to die in the trenches. Critics don’t dare touch the dead, you said, but why, I wondered, were you so concerned with critics in the first place?
I meant what I said in my last letter. I will come back to you, alive. I will forsake heroism, avoid undue risks, cringe and shirk like a coward if that’s what it takes. I can conceive of no higher courage than risking scorn and court-martial to return to your arms again.
This place is so alive with poetry. So many unsaid things. My attempts at journal entries keep devolving into poem fragments, and letters to you. I wish that you were here to help me wring them out of myself. I was going to write My heart hurts, with all the things I cannot write to you, and then I thought of the way you’d have rolled your eyes at the cliché of it all. And how I would have cursed myself and these philistine impulses inside of me.
Thursday, 27 October 1932
In London for a few days, to meet Steenie’s doctor, and what should appear amidst the morning post? The maid said nothing about the mud-spattered envelope, mixed in with other letters. How—and why—are these appearing now, so many years too late?
I want to believe there was some mishap, some snarl only sorted out, and that men and women across England are receiving word from their own dead sons and lovers. But what we shared was more difficult than filial fondness, more complicated than sweethearts’ affection, and so of course these letters feel equally difficult, equally complicated. Frightening, even. Receiving them unnerves me, as meeting you did. The sight of an envelope addressed in your hand, today, sends the same bolt down my spine as catching your eyes that first time in Craiglockhart.
Your promise, to return… my God, Will. I would have given you the greatest tongue lashing of your life, if I had read that back in 1918. And I would have lashed myself, as well, for inspiring such romantic dedication. I envisioned us as comrades. Lovers, yes, but also soldiers, bound together by art and war. With another decade’s wisdom, I know the distinction is absurd.
But sometimes that martial bond seems simpler than what I share with men like Steenie, who have never seen the trenches. Here I am a “dear companion,” an elevated valet, a factotum-friend. Sometimes in London’s streets, a spat-at sodomite. The love that soldiers share, that blood-bright poppy, is a weed unwelcome in peaceful England’s climes. A pity, for it warmed us and stopped fear, cured trench foot for an hour. It made men mad, or perhaps brave; it was hard to tell the difference sometimes. I saw soldiers die for me whose arms I’d clasped, whose breaths I’d breathed. Over the top they went and only some came back, often armless to my open hands.
I have been thinking about this since yesterday, when I met with Steenie’s doctor at his club. Some friends of his came in as we were finishing our conversation—political types. Mosley’s people; blackshirts. They talked at length about Germany, the fascists, what MacDonald might learn from Hitler. It seemed rude to leave, and so I stayed and listened. I am not bellicose, by any means, but their talk of mastery appealed to me, in a way that—may I borrow the phrase?—stirred my Soul. And some of what they said rang true—strength in comradeship, in unity of purpose. Whole nations built upon the bond of brothers in arms. At times, it sounded almost Greek.
“Who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?” Phaedrus—is that Phaedrus? Cambridge is a long way off—would have given Greece an army of such men.
“You said it would be a good thing for my poetry…” Don’t yoke me with that burden. I think about those words so often, with regret. With time and distance I look back and hate the petty young Sassoon who said them. His jibing lost the world a brilliant light.
You’d have another book by now, or three. I would have helped you write them, and celebrated your success with admiration untainted by envy, or by grief.
There was so much poetry to teach you that the front could not. There are things I want to do with you, to you, which can never now be done. The pity of War has robbed our generation of so much, but it has robbed me of much, much more.
4 October 1918
In the field
Dreams of Roderick, this morning. How the little man swelled up with pride at the slightest attention! Rising sunlight; starched linen; your overzealous radiator (and our own Zeal) dampening us even in autumn. And poetry after. The Classics, often. A confession: they always felt dead to me, except the dirty bits. Phaedrus made me blush: “He wants to see him, touch him, kiss him, embrace him, and probably not long afterwards his desire is accomplished.”
How good we had it.
The screams of other men woke me up, as they jolt me out of every dream now. Screams or gunshots or explosions. How odd that in hospital I slept in such sweet comfort and yet dreamed of Atrocity, and woke up screaming or flailing or sobbing. And here I dream of You, of Us, of Poetry, and am awakened by Death, and sit up calm, hungry, eager for bloodshed. My treatment was entirely too successful. The Doctor worked magic, but it was the magic of the fairy-tale witch who we mistake for the kindly spinster stepmother, and only see too late to be a monster.
As you must know, if you scan the newspapers for news of my Division, as surely you must, as I would scan for yours, I have been in action for some days. Commanding the Company, capturing scores of prisoners. Shot one man with my revolver. The rest I took with a smile. Enough, now. Too many details will disturb the censor, and my own Rest.
Efraim’s first fighting. I found him after, thinking to rouse his troubled spirits—a gentle, bookish soul—and was startled at his glassy eyes and absent affect. I remember weeping for hours after my debut battle. Fascinating, how two human minds respond so differently to the same thing.
Half the time I think you must be dead. I tell myself it is the only explanation for why you would let so long go by without a letter. The other half of the time I begin to perceive very well why you might be alive and well and utterly uninterested in ever writing to me again. Astonishing, the lengths we’ll go to lie to ourselves.
And so. To treatment.
Coal-grim rain slimed the windows on that first visit. Edinburgh’s ever-present pillars of industrial smoke sagged at the horizon, Impressionist blurs. Something about the rain has always made me a child again, afraid of thunder but giddy to be inside and warm and dry. You never set foot inside that Good Doctor’s office—why not, it occurs to me now to wonder? Your treatment with Rivers seemed to consist exclusively of golf—but it had the high ceilings and candle wax smell of any church, and under it all the whiff of mothballs and something worse, an old man’s mouth perhaps. He kept me waiting, but I was happy. I trusted him, isn’t that astonishing? Without ever having met him, I trusted that he could make me better. What dumb monkeys we are, to still believe that age and rank and achievement make a man Good.
I dozed, for an instant or an hour, and when I opened my eyes again he sat behind his desk. Smiling, patiently, watching me as I straightened my back and offered excuses and called him Sir. How kind he seemed, this stout man walrus-mustached. How safe I felt, to be in his hands, in spite of the gooseflesh-inspiring unwholesomeness of the space. How I longed to be healed—how confident I felt that he could purge me of my nightmares, inoculate me against these screaming jags, administer an elixir and rid of me of this ponderous lurking Thing in the back of my brain that constantly threatens to shatter my whole world like a light bulb stomped. Silly, slavish Wilfred, so trusting, so enraptured of his superiors, truly believing them to be his Betters.
A large contraption sat beside his desk, which I recognized as some kind of variation on the lantern shows from before the cinema came to Shropshire. He saw me staring and leapt up at once, a proud parent, and cranked two levers and flicked a switch. A wound filled the wall, a man’s mud-splattered scalp, bone fissured in the breach, the black-and-white hand-painted with Renoir daubs of bright red. The Good Doctor watched me keenly, but I did not react and he seemed to sit down disappointed.
We’re approaching a canal. Terribly strategically important, yet all I can think of is how I loved the water as a child. Again and again I caught colds, swimming long after it was prudent to do so. And because apparently every happy memory must immediately yield an ugly one—damn you, Doctor, wherever you are—I recall the baths at Shrewsbury, where farmhands and Lords alike went for steam and soap and friendship: how proudly I wrote my mother to tell her that I only struck up conversations with men once I had heard the aspiration of the “H,” and therefore knew them for Nobility. My stomach heaves, at the memory of what a wretched, obsequious creature I was. Or am.
I ache for you. Certainly there are more artful ways to say it. Surely I could assemble lovely subtle witty clever sentences that would satisfy both Sassoon the Pedant and The Unseen Censor. (As an aside—sometimes you two seem to have more in common than you would like to admit.) In the end, it boils down to my body, aching and alone, demanding something it cannot have.
Efraim is lovely in sleep. How easy it would be, to make of him what you made of me. He would do whatever I asked him to do.
Do write. Do tell me I’ve got it all wrong when my mind leaps and gibbers like a crazed Monkey and provides me with all sorts of unhelpful imagery of Yourself, with subjects less distant and more pliable than Myself.
I think of Achilles, whom you called “History’s most famous malingerer,” sulking among the women for most of the Iliad, roused to action only when his beloved Patroclus is killed. How noble you found Achilles. I wonder what it would take to bring you back.
Monday, 2 January 1933
This one cannot be coincidence.
I have had time to think it over, walking the pastures, clutching your letter in a cold-cracked hand. That’s how I found it—reaching for my gloves in my pockets, finding paper.
Mother might say your restless spirit is reaching out from beyond the veil. I’d be more inclined to suspect a prank by some bloody-minded friend—Graves, perhaps, were we still on good terms—except the letters sound like you. And no one else—not even Robert, who’d have worn it out with laughing—has ever used “Roderick” in reference to my cock. And who the devil could have slipped the envelope into my coat pocket?
An unoriginal phrase, “Who the devil.” Yet it chills me. Why are your letters coming now? Is our correspondence at the mercy of some cruel, capricious demon? I don’t subscribe to the superstitions of my father’s family, nor the piety of my mother’s, but the appearance of a letter in my coat pocket, nearly fifteen years too late? No earthly explanation does it justice.
To add to all the strangeness, I have remembered—the doctor who treated you, his name was Watts, wasn’t it? And now he’s here, at Swaylands, treating Steenie. Reading your letters, Will, I am frightened. When I met with him in London, it didn’t strike me right away. But something about the name, the demeanor, seemed familiar. His avuncular attitude put me at ease, initially, but later, I realized I had allowed him liberties I might otherwise have balked at, told him things I later wished I hadn’t. About Steenie, and myself.
I told him about Steenie’s episodes, about some of his… frustrations during intimacy, and the subsequent rages. How his silver eyes flash, tear-polished, and his mouth turns cruel. But I did not tell the doctor how, when Steenie exhausts his anger, he lies weeping in my arms, begging my forgiveness, praying for my patience. I always grant his wish. It makes me feel powerful—benevolent—but more importantly, it makes him happy. His cheeks flush and his lips turn soft again, his tears to tears of joy. He is an angelic picture, like a tragic youth by Waterhouse. If I found Achilles noble once, Ganymede holds more appeal in peacetime. The trenches were a beautiful place, but in retrospect their beauty seems a brutal, savage sort: exhausting.
We had to invent new metaphors, new words to talk about that hideous beauty, in our poetry. Civilian readers couldn’t grasp those neologisms—their lexicon did not include the elegance of cruelty. Sometimes they were baffled, expecting old clichés. But we kept trying to connect, to communicate the grace we saw in every abhorrent situation.
Remember my poem, “The Kiss”? I explained the satire to so many readers horrified by the verse’s apparent grotesquery and malice. Of all the cruelties of war—gas and howitzers and mud—bayonet fighting was the worst. Yet, at times, I felt the urge—the hunger—to destroy. To plunge with steel and send home bullets. The need was born of grief but no less red and wrathful for its tender source.
I felt it when I learned you’d died, but by then it was too late. The armistice was signed. There were no Germans left to fight.
The date on your letter hurts to read. I wish you had been cowardly. That I had given you the love you needed and deserved, enough to inspire desertion. Imagining it conjures memories of a life we never shared. Your thick eyebrows knit together as you scanned the morning paper, your thoughts on the General Strike, on jazz and modernism. You would have gone into politics, I think—you were so angry, and you spoke so well (when you forgot to stutter).
But you never would have given up your poetry. We could have pinned reviews—praise and derision alike, for if you’d lived, surely you’d have been lampooned—side by side above the hearth in the smoking room at Weirleigh. If I close my eyes I hear our pens, scratching in the late-night hush, as they might have had you taken my advice and stayed at home. A low-voiced question—this word, this line?—answered by the nip of a metal nib on paper. Conversations put down and taken up like the familiar trinkets on the mantelpiece; our medals, framed, a photograph of you and me with Hardy. I think True Thomas would have liked you—you were both such keen observers, and you could both be mischievous when the mood struck you.
We would have fought for blankets, tangling our ankles. When I woke I would have seen your rough cheek turned against the morning-rumpled linen, sunlight through your graying hair—how much silver at your temples now, the boy whom War turned white at twenty-four?
I am a liar. I have seen you every day, in the batsman and the bellhop and a thousand others. I have dreamt your life with me into our middle age, into the shadows of senescence. I have seen you in the moment when I wake with some other man beside me and, still half-dreaming, say your name.
One more month of life for you, fifteen years ago. Must I mourn again? It doesn’t bear thinking about. Don’t go into that canal. Turn and run, to me or anywhere.
Therapeutic indeed, this silence. I’m learning so much. About you, but mostly about myself. War is a mirror for Man, you told me, and now I see that so is any painful experience.
I doze among elm trees rudely stripped naked, all their ugliness exposed. My pipe holds half tobacco, half crushed fallen leaves. I endeavor to sketch songs of our first meetings, to purge myself of starry-eyed hero worship and perhaps ascertain if my understanding of things was different from yours. And it is so strange, with what clarity I can see your room, and smell it too—the refined aroma of expensive pipe tobacco, and the sherry the rest of us were forbidden. One saw at once that here was a man to whom the rules did not apply. I recall that your windows faced west, so the morning sun did not dazzle you awake immediately as it did we boys on the other side of the hall, and even in this, I realized, Privilege was at work. All details grim and glorious and explicit—save you, Siegfried. In your place is a dazzling void. The great poet and incorrigible gadabout, in the flesh, so magnificent that I must have averted my eyes. Why else would I have no memory of You, those first few meetings? Your words, your actions are burned into my brain, but you? A blur. Indeed, later you flit into focus, as you stopped being Unseeable to me, but we never did have much of a shot at relating as equals, did we? Not when I came to you first with five copies of your book beneath my arm, imploring you to sign each one for a different friend, when I had no intention of ever parting with any of them.
Efraim confessed a terrible sin to me this morning: he wishes to be a Poet. Said my men spoke proudly of my publications, my London literary acquaintances, slim as they are, as if getting into print transforms a man into something more solid, more real, more Man. I suppose I believed the same thing, once. I think it contributed to the halo I imagined hovering over your head. Tried to talk Efraim out of it, of course, but knew it was futile. I shared a copy of your book and a few of my own newsprint scraps, and he nearly fell to pieces. Fell to pieces—an interesting cliché, that. I suppose they all are. A bit like the flourish a magician uses, to distract from his chicanery. A way to swiftly send a complex emotion from one human to another. I wonder why you hated them so. Back then I treasured your every utterance as evidence of genius, but now I wonder. It would be so easy, when Efraim looks up at me with that broad earnest face and asks me something unanswerable, to hand him a pearl of glib meaninglessness to puzzle over.
They had said you were there for shell shock, but I knew five minutes in that this was fraud. Not that I held it against you, once I knew the full truth—how that damned published Letter of yours, pleading for Peace, threatened to get you court-martialed, and how Graves induced a kindly smitten fop doctor to write a counter-Letter, of sorts, pleading insanity on your behalf, securing you a delightful (if undesired) detour into Craiglockhart hospital. How I admired you for it, at the time. How brave it seemed, and how noble the dilemma before you: to cling to your ideals, go nobly to the gallows—or, more likely, face a very public trial where the Crown would do all in its power to discredit you and dilute the power of your words, including exposing the skeletons in the closet we share—or to forsake your own beliefs and save your name by adding your voice to the hosanna chorus of patriotic bloodlust Bull Dung.
How ridiculous I was—with you, and with the Good Doctor—then.
Doctor Watts had an intake form a mile long. Imagery obsessed him especially. “Most beautiful thing I ever saw,” “recurrent adolescent nightmares,” “moment as a child when I felt the most afraid,” “most unpleasant smell,” etc. Fascinated by my war-whitened hair. I recall now—strange, what memories ride on other memories—that he struck me in the moment as very much like you. That same pride in paternalism, as though someone else’s innocence amplified his own experience. Studied with Pavlov in Russia—name meant nothing to me, and when I said so the Doctor nodded sagely, mock-humble, much like you when I confessed to not knowing who this Poet or that one was.
“Pavlov proved that all animal behavior consists of conditioned responses. Moreover, Pavlov believed—and I believe—that all men are in fact animals, and therefore machines, and therefore even the most complex and illogical responses can be conditioned.”
I inclined my head and tilted it slightly as if in thought, the same way, when you were endeavoring to educate me, I would hide my own utter incomprehension. And then I thought of you, calling me mulish or pig-headed, and how I delighted in being your animal.
More questions. Particularly interested in my recurrent nightmare of ramming a bayonet repeatedly down a boy’s throat. “Betrays an oral fixation,” he said, and my face stayed blank as behind it I giggled over what you would think of that twist of jargon. Medical terminology is the only acceptable form of cliché, you told me once, when I complained about my latest diagnosis, because its purpose is to preserve the true horror of things, while most clichés exist to obscure it. Perhaps it’s a mark of my personal growth that I don’t mind telling you, now, that I haven’t the faintest idea what that means.
And then, at the end of it, more lantern slides. More images, stretched to fill the wall, of black-and-white blood painted red that was all the more grisly for its Christmas cheeriness. But others too, now, penny-postcard naked Ladies, Victoria and Albert, Shakespeare, cereal ads, glimpses I recognized from propaganda posters. Calipers large and small, ice-cold and sharp, on my heart, my neck, my Manhood—”Pavlov cut away the cheeks of dogs to measure saliva flow more efficiently,” he said, patting my own with perhaps regret that he could not do likewise.
On my fifth session with Doctor Watts, I went in to his office to find his desk miraculously cleared of clutter. And in its place: my mind and guts and bowels and blood, spread out in orderly piles. My notebooks, my letters, my Diary—yes, that Diary—all offered up to this fiendish grinning glutton like a banquet. I suppose I swore, cursed, stomped my foot, and through it all his smile deepened. When he spoke he had the booming self-assured schoolmasterishness of every parish priest and field officer (and, aye, Hero Poet) I had ever met. The State was empowered by the Something Something Something Act to take all appropriate measures to speed the healing of its wounded sons, including steps that might feel invasive or painful, and surely I had to know it was all for my own good! And I, fool that I am, I nodded and assented and sat down to be Treated, ashamed of myself for ever doubting in the benevolence of my betters.
And then: the lantern show.
The images were different now. Familiar. A beautiful boy biting into an apple, juxtaposed immediately with an image of a man’s skull blown open. The whirling of a twilight back-home carousel, followed by a close-up of a man dying from Gas—white eyes writhing, blood gargling from his throat.
They came from my poems.
My own reaction shocked me: I began to scream. Silly, I know. But I felt: plundered. Violated. This man had broken into the deepest darkest places of my mind, and seen things too sacred to me to ever see the light of day, and stolen them, and turned them to his own ugly purposes. I screamed a great deal; I could not stop myself. This seemed to please the Doctor immensely. He was close to a breakthrough, he said. Soon he’d be able to easily treat every shell-shocked war-wounded battle-broken Soul with the misfortune to limp home alive from the front. Fix them up, and send them back.
I ended the session early. That’s a tactful euphemism for: I ran weeping from the office. I went directly to your room, but you were out. Golf, they told me. You were gone a long time. So long that when you returned, I no longer had any need of comforting.
My pipe finished, I can smell the front. Mud, howitzers, mustard gas. We must be very close. I wear my promise to you like a magic cloak, bulletproof and gas-resistant, deafening me to my men’s screams, blocking out everything but the desire to live to see you again. But what, I wonder, is the point of such a promise when it’s not reciprocated?
Surely your silence means you’ve found some other boy to prattle on about. Do tell me it’s not true.
Friday, 10 February 1933
Would you explain, Will, how you managed to get this into my old copy of Tess? And has it been there since the War, or did it just… manifest today when an unsettled heart had me flipping through Hardy—always my solace. Whatever the method, there you were, deep in a pure woman, faithfully represented, (inaccurate entendre, but irresistible) between Talbothay’s and the wedding.
Another time I might have taken the matter to my mother; after all, she’s well read up on spiritualism. But your scolding stung and I wanted to sulk in private. Imagine: you’ve been dead so long and yet you make me squirm with guilt for describing Steenie’s eyelashes.
Another boy? No. I needed time to recover. When your letters stopped arriving, I lost a part of who I was. Alone, it is hard for me to create myself. I need—ironically—guidance. For my protégé to tell me what he needs. Man, soldier, poet—you aspired to all these titles, and because you did, I encompassed them for you. Reading your words now, it is as if I am losing that part, and you, again. Worse now, because I have begun to understand exactly what you might have meant to me.
Watching your disillusionment is hellish, but I feel like I deserve the torment. I am the man who pushed you back into the trenches, out of his own twisted, guilty need to justify a love that never needed justification.
Was it Watts, who changed you? Or your own reflections upon our relationship? You write so angrily about my attitudes, my “privilege.” But Will, you know from experience: if men look at me and see nobility, if boys seek in me and find a Hero Poet, why should I deny them, especially if it inspires nobility and heroism in me? My protest, which you mock, I’ll own as foolish. But back in command, after Craiglockhart, I knew I was in the right place. Even now that I have loosed the martial strictures from my lust, I know: with good men beneath me, I am better.
Go on, take that as a euphemism too. In your diary, you were less coy. I remember you could sometimes—blushing, in the smallest hours of our restless nights—be persuaded to read from it about things we’d done and things you’d only dreamed. Your soft and velvet voice was steady when you started, but as the flush crept up your neck, your tones grew rough and you began to stammer. Not from neurasthenia, but with the embarrassment of a schoolboy forced to read out naughty doggerel before his master.
Those passages are lost now except to my increasingly fallible memory. Your diaries, your poems still in manuscript—your brother did a number on them. And heaven only knows what you had your mother burn. I assume it was incriminating. Oh, what a word to use!
I feel—keenly—the agony and betrayal you must have felt, with your diary and verse spread naked before Watts’s eyes. You were many things, Will, but never ridiculous. As piqued as I am at the chiding tone of your letter, it is nothing like the impotent rage I feel towards that charlatan psychologist.
Yes, impotent, even now. My letters to Watts, concerning Steenie’s treatment, have so far been met with affable elision, so I drove down to Swaylands to confront the man himself. Steenie loves flowers so I brought a bundle of yellow hothouse roses. All through the afternoon he looked anywhere but at their blooms. He stammered—not charmingly, but like the worst of the lads at dottyville, as though choking on something he needed desperately to say.
Afterwards in Watts’ office, I asked how Steenie’s treatment was progressing. “Perfect,” he said. “Textbook. He’ll be cured and back to his old tricks in no time.” The wink he gave me, Will, does not bear description.
“I know you gave it your all in the War,” he had the gall to say, “but really, some of our best techniques come from the Germans.”
I bit the inside of my cheek and thanked him for his time. As I was leaving, I passed a nurse carrying a bundle of yellow roses down the hall. She smiled at me between the blooms.
The halls at Swaylands are bright and open, airy, comfortable. Nothing like the old hydro they crammed us into up in Scotland. But when I crossed the threshold and stepped outside, I felt as though I were escaping, narrowly, from some awful dungeon and the ogre deep within.
Black bare branches against the sky. Carbolic acid stink of twilight. Men’s mouths, wide with laughter or death. Flares and fighting lighting up the distant midnight sky.
The poetry is gone from here.
I can feel it, smell it, know it’s there, but it is Beauty and I am a blind man.
He strapped me onto a bed: long and angled and leather. He bound my face in wet cloth. I was utterly sightless. I heard a polyphonic hum, the whine of a dozen engines. I heard him pull levers and flip switches. Some massive, unthinkable machine gasped and wheezed and screeched beside me. Things moved, in my darkness, and I could smell things. Rifle oil; the faintest whiff of mustard gas; a dead man’s shit. Sounds: records playing, somewhere. Men’s screams. Dreadfully scratchy, recognizable only as what they were perhaps to one who had heard them as they were uttered. And I, dolt and double dolt that I am, only realized then what Herculean resources this piddling hospital doctor would have needed to assemble this Nightmare.
He did not care a fig for my healing. The Crown wanted all broken men back to the front, even if doing so destroyed us. The Crown gave him whatever he needed to make that happen.
A thought: a lone, fleeting spasm of Art that convulsed me briefly during morning mess. How much we admired Achilles, the depth of his love for Patroclus, the ferocity of his vengeance, the sanctity of his vow to immortalize his lover, transform the boy’s meaningless death into a Thing that changes the course of History.
And yet—now, here—I wonder. No, worse than wondering: I know. If Achilles had not let his own Pride and pettiness (and cowardice, yes, cowardice, for just because you’re willing to brave death doesn’t mean you’re not a coward) keep him from the fight, Patroclus would not have had to die in the first place.
My stammer has returned. You used to find it charming. At the time I was so gratified by any attention from you, I didn’t mind the condescension. Now I am not so sure. The stammer then was shock and trauma. Now I think it something else. Something more sinister; some Psychic scarring from whatever meddling that madman did in there. Words cannot find their way out. Writing is better, but not by much. It’s as though I’ve lost a crucial Faculty, subtler but far more meaningful than Sight or Smell. What did he do to me?
Last night, I woke to Efraim against me. These last few days he has never been far from my side, so I suppose I was not surprised. We are garrisoned not far from the front, in the basement of a farmhouse—is it still the basement of a farmhouse, when the farmhouse is gone?
“What are you doing?” I asked. He said he could not sleep. It was too cold. He was too homesick. He was plagued by nightmares, since surviving some kind of special scientific screening introduced at the end of his basic training. He said he would not tell, if I let him sleep beside me. But five minutes hadn’t passed, before he rolled over to clasp his arms around me. I knew, as if watching my own past, what was happening. What he had heard about me. How he thought that by offering himself to me, he might earn my love.
So. I did it, Siegfried. I took him. Savagely, greedily, hissing orders, bending back arms and hitting hard when he would not comply quickly enough. Precisely as you taught me. Martial men need to feel forced into it, you told me, lest they learn how badly they want it.
He loved it, of course. He reveled in his debasement, gurgling out the most unspeakable songs of joy and pain. That doesn’t make it any easier. Because so did I, for you, under you, and look where I am now.
The world wants to make us monsters. The only sin, Siegfried, is letting it.
Tuesday, 23 May 1933
One can give all the passion in one’s being to a person or a cause and founder utterly. Like Haig and the Somme, the things which matter most I execute most poorly.
My war satires, dashed off like dirty limericks, still garner praise. My beloved lyric poetry? Shunned. And now I’m learning even little Wilfred was filled with nothing but scorn for Siegfried, as he went to his death in a dirty canal. Scorn, and monstrous savagery. The creature you became, the things you did to your tender Jewish private… is that what I became, what I did to you? I never meant it quite so cruelly, did I?
Now I am not sure. Then, I could not love the way I loved outside a set of rules, rôles, of straight and narrow pathways drawn by power. You should have been loved better. If I had you now… I am still the same rough master in some superficial ways, but I have been taught softness, and the difference between sex and love.
A note came yesterday from Dr. Watts, passing on a message from Steenie that my visits upset him and please to stay away, not to write.
Rage! Incoherent rage. I am still capable of the savagery I decry. But now, a day later, with a good charge across the downs and a decent few meals and time to think, I realized that my rage masked guilt and pain.
I found the letter as I walked my exhausted mare back home, both of us sweat-veiled and sighing. Wind rustled the paper where it had snagged in a fence along the lane, making it shake like a trapped creature. Once I read it I wanted to tear off again, but the horse wouldn’t bear me. I was forced to lead her and keep company with my thoughts.
I burned with fury at your accusations of cowardice and pettiness, when I felt as if I had given everything I had to you, the War, my men—even, now, to Steenie. But apparently too late, or not enough, or wrongly.
I despise these ongoing comparisons to the Iliad. They smack of cliché, tired metaphor. And yet they fit too well.
Brave Patroclus! His only fault was striving for the admiration of a hero who would not draw a sword to save him. Would that some German Paris, guided by the gods, had struck me in the heel and immortalized me like those boys whose names are writ on plaques in post offices and pubs in every English town. Instead, I live and hold this letter that cannot be a hoax, and it damns me with its classical allusions. Perhaps damns me in a more traditional sense, as well. It is a kind of purgatory, receiving these ghostly, unanswerable letters. Maybe not the devil, then, but something grander and more just. Some ironic god of love, or war, punishing my failure in both theatres. Yes, I will admit it, at last: I am no Mad Jack. I am a malingerer who failed to die in glorious battle, who was afraid except in fleeting moments of insanity. A man whose love was—and perhaps remains—too selfish and too cruel, too riddled through with caveats. And now, some larger, crueler force is taking me to task.
I’m sorry, Will. Finally, I said it. Sorry that I couldn’t save you. That I was neither the lover nor the hero you so needed and deserved. That I didn’t see what Watts was doing to your mind. That I ever said those stupid words about the front being good for your poetry.
You held me as Christ, Keats, Elijah, a thousand other things I did not deserve. I know I cannot hope for absolution from a dead man. But still, after all these letters… Why not one more? Hide it in my newspaper, or my pillowcase. Slip it under my door late at night like you did in Scotland, when you had shut yourself away with pen and paper and locked me out, and you wanted to apologise—to show me why.
They were beautiful, those verses written in the dark, alone. They were your best. Far better than what you wrote while I looked over your shoulder.
Could you forgive me? How do I earn it? If I save Steenie from Watts, will it absolve me from the sin of failing you? Does action now negate inaction in the past? What can I do to save the man I love, and lay to rest the ghost I loved?
Because we two can never again come back
On life’s one forward track…
And since the unreturning day must die,
Let it for ever be lit by an evening sky
And wild myrtle grow upon its grave.
I wrote that for Steenie. Now I see it was more than half for you. I have overcome my pride and shame too late, Will. You no longer date your letters. How long before I lose you, once again, forever? Before you go, I am asking—begging—one more letter. Please.
A glorious morning. We arrived at the canal; we mean to cross it tomorrow. Its smell—you’ll laugh—aroused my Soul. There’s something so wholesome about running water. A smell of freedom; sunlight; wet skin. Wind, cold on my side through the hole in my shirt—no, Siegfried, worry not—no bullet holes in me—merely snagged it on a barbed-wire fence along a lane, a week ago.
And in the night, a rhythmic yelping. Passing from man to man like Fear, like echoes, the length of the trench. Something singular about it stuck in my throat, overpowered my exhaustion, kept me up, listening, and then I Heard: the rhythm was mine, my own muttered adolescent efforts to master dactyls, trochees, iambs, anapests. Another thing Doctor Watts stole from me, to make his malevolent machine. Or is that paranoid delusion, madness? It is, of course, but what madness, here, is too mad?
Women of Britain say GO! England expects every man to do his duty! Your country needs you! Come along boys before it’s too late! Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori! Etc. You mocked them, these clichés, these slogans from shopfront windows and the well-worn lips of women, as drugs to lure the ignorant and the daft. I smiled and nodded, as I often did when I thought you were simply smarter than me, saying yes, what dupes we were. Only now do I see that what I took for wisdom and higher insight on your part, was in fact an ignorance every bit as pitiable as that which led the illiterate miner lad into the trenches. How could you be expected to know what words can mean to broken men?
I forgive you, Siegfried, of course. What a hypocrite I’d be, to bear you any ill will, now, when I have proved how very much like you I am. We are monsters, Siegfried, for we are men.
I never could stay mad at you. And this Silence of yours—it’s helped me more than you can ever know. Few things hurt more than having our eyes opened to the ugly truth, but if I’m a lamb doomed to live out my life in the shadow of the slaughterhouse I’d rather not spend those days believing my butchers are my friends.
But that promise I made—I’m not so sure I can be bound by it any longer. You see, I did not know who you were, back when I made it. And I was someone else altogether.
Champagne waited for me, on my last appointment. Bottle uncorked; beverage decanted; bubbles slinking skyward in two glasses.
“Victory!” he said, gesturing for me to drink, “A breakthrough!” hiccupping slightly, “Applications unimagined mere months ago!”
I was the key, he assured me. My mind—the mind you sharpened, led him to the precise regimen of images and sounds and smells.
“Totally untested, of course—only time will tell, the long-term consequences—but dammit there’s a war on, and we know the long-term consequences of losing!”
And he owes it all to me.
And I owe it all to you.
Efraim is dead. Shot yesterday, in our great glorious final advance to this bloody canal. A stupid, senseless death. I watched the whole thing. He stalked out onto open soil like a man possessed, to kill a cornered foe, and instead of a quick clean shot to the head he began stabbing his bayonet repeatedly down the boy’s throat. A Boche bullet split his ribcage open while he stood there, stupid and exposed. Took him quite some time to empty out. I wish I could have held his hand, or shot him to stop his suffering, but to do so would have been to entice a Teutonic missive of my own. He called my name, but I don’t suppose I should feel particularly special about it. He called a lot of names. He could not have known how responsible I actually was for his death.
I’ve been given a great gift. By Doctor Watts, and by you. Christs and Keatses and Elijahs—I spent so much of my life leaning on them. But those men are all either liars or fools or monsters—not that I’m mad at them. At you. They’re as deluded as the men they delude. I hope by now you’ve learned this. You’ll forgive me going out on a cliché, I hope—I think a cliché is simply a pretty shroud to wrap an ugly truth in, and perhaps if you can see past your snobbish grammarianism you’ll let me share this with you. Only the body is real, the site of our sharpest pleasures and of soul-shattering pain, this seat of savage need and unceasing lusts—the body, and what it does with the bodies it loves, maternal embraces and boyish carousing and Manly affection—and all the beauty and truth and poetry and heroism in the world only serve to lure us like lambs to the slaughter.
Tuesday, 13 June 1933
To hope so hard, for such a backhanded exoneration! I’ll take fool, and even liar. But butcher? Monster? Perhaps I should be grateful you didn’t call me worse. Heaven knows I have been harshly branded in these intervening weeks.
I’ve grown grim since Steenie threw me over. The end of the affair caused ugly rifts among our set. I sometimes feel like all my friends are falling away, like petals from a wilting flower. How saccharine. But a cliché, as you say, is a pretty shroud for an ugly truth.
Acquaintances try to keep me busy—some know what Steenie meant to me, and aim to distract me from my misery. Last week I was forced into a doublet and hose for a fancy dress party. Can you imagine?
And yet it worked. I found myself smiling, laughing, meeting people. As the afternoon grew hot, I lay by the river in the shade, reciting poetry to someone’s pretty sister. That nonsense verse I gave you when you left Edinburgh—do you remember? I do, still, by heart. Funny what should stick after so many years. When Captain Cook first sniff’d the wattle/And love Columbus’d Aristotle…
The river called your canal to mind, on that morning long ago. And beneath the nostalgia, the knowledge that cruel men with too much power sent you there. Will send boys into canals again, and soon.
Strange that you should mention Watts’s German colleagues. I hear he’s on a German lecture tour, sharing his methods with doctors there, culminating in a Heidelberg residency.
God only knows what horrors Watts will teach to halls packed with German students of psychology. Students, too, of fascism. They’re everywhere, these days—the Fascists. England is proving fertile soil for their thorny ideology. Even the sparkling socialite Diana Guinness has taken up with the British blackshirts. Left her husband for Oswald Mosley, of all people. She’s talking about going to Berlin.
I sound disgusted, don’t I? Why should I, especially given I was once almost swayed by a few armchair philosophers? I’ve struggled for so long against my Jewish blood and inverted nature to create an identity that is English, masculine, martial, strong. I have couched my Greek desires in brotherly affection, soldier-love. Fascism should appeal to me, as a man fascinated by the mastery of other men.
But for all Steenie’s flaws, he taught me the beauty of tenderness, and there is none in the blackshirts’ mastery. It is the crack of the whip, not the small, soft scratch of the pen’s correcting nib, and it leaves no room for grace. As a soldier and a poet, I seek worlds and men encompassing both strength and art.
Here we come around again, to my blind and stubborn heart. I sent the one man who encompassed both these virtues back to the front, to fall apart and die one week before the armistice. I feel as though I robbed the world of balance, and now the pendulum is swinging once again toward war.
I have been thinking about cliché, Will. About how it combines artifice and armature—the pretty turn of phrase disguising decades, centuries of reiteration. Lure us like lambs? No. Clichés do not make us animal; they prove the continuity of human connection. They are shared metaphors, shorthand communication.
There is something to be said for originality, but think again about “The Kiss,” and the confusion of my readers. For immediate comprehension, sometimes one must rely on that comparison understood by the human mass: eyes like stars, lips like roses, more’s the pity, pissing rain. Without this language to inspire instant empathy, we can become unthinking beasts, rending each other’s flesh in the mud.
Our bodies may be the site of our own pain and pleasure, but how can we make other bodies understand those experiences if not with art? Without artistic outlet, our experiences inform our actions only; we cannot teach others, nor learn from them. Think, Will: how else could I absorb your anger and your absolution, nearly fifteen years after you put them down on paper? Do you not understand that irony, that to make me understand your disillusionment, you had to write it down? Look how you have taught your old master, with your letters. I cherish every tired metaphor you used—they prove that Watts could not take everything which made you Man, and Poet.
And without the intervention of some greater power—something beyond our earthly bodies and small human minds—tell me Will, without that power, why did I receive your letters not as you sent them, but when I needed them? When they would change me most, and for the better?
I don’t pretend to understand. I’m neither a prophet nor a savior. Neither, heaven knows, is Watts. But just because you placed your faith in false gods and idols doesn’t mean the real ones don’t exist: men who speak a beautiful truth with divine conviction. Men who stand against ugliness and tyranny with noble words and deeds.
I am not one of those men—not Christ, nor Keats, nor Elijah. But you, Will… you might have been.
Instead, I alone remain, remaining:
(Editors’ Note: Sam J. Miller & Lara Elena Donnelly are interviewed by Shana DuBois in this issue.)
© 2017 by Sam J. Miller & Lara Elena Donnelly