edited by C.E.M. Joad
West’s ‘Poems’, which form the fifth section of the Diary, are here transcribed from a photocopy of the 1918 edition. The Diary of a dead Officer was reissued in 1991 by the Imperial War Museum with an introduction by Dominic Hibbard, currently out of print. West was shot by a sniper in 1917.
Phases from H. Rex Feston’s “The Quest of Truth”: Poems on Doubt, War, Sorrow, Despair, Hope, Death, Somewhere in France. He was killed in action and was an undergraduate at Exeter.
His attitude is that God is good, amused, rather, at us fighting. “Oh, happy to have lived these epic days,” he writes (of us). This (he had been three years at Oxford) is his address to the Atheists:
I know that God will never let me die,
He is too passionate and intense for that.
See how He swings His great suns through the sky,
See how He hammers the proud-faced mountains flat;
He takes a handful of a million years
And flings them at the planets; or He throws
His red stars at the moon; then with hot tears
He stops to kiss one little earth-born rose.
Don’t nail God down to rules, and think you know!
Or God, Who sorrows all a summer’s day
Because a blade of grass had died, will come
And suck this world up in His lips, and lo!
Will spit it out a pebble, powdered grey,
Into the whirl of Infinity’s nothingless foam.
This ruined the reputation of all English Atheists for months!
God! How I hate you, you young cheerful men,
Whose pious poetry blossoms on your graves
As soon as you are in them, nurtured up
By the salt of your corruption, and the tears
Of mothers, local vicars, college deans,
And flanked by prefaces and photographs
From all you minor poet friends — the fools —
Who paint their sentimental elegies
Where sure, no angel treads; and, living, share
The dead’s brief immortality
To think that one could spread the ductile wax
Of his fluid youth to Oxford’s glowing fires
And take her seal so ill! Hark how one chants —
“Oh happy to have lived these epic days” —
“These epic days”! And he’d been to France,
And seen the trenches, glimpsed the huddled dead
In the periscope, hung in the rusting wire:
Chobed by their sickley fœtor, day and night
Blown down his throat: stumbled through ruined hearths,
Proved all that muddy brown monotony,
Where blood’s the only coloured thing. Perhaps
Had seen a man killed, a sentry shot at night,
Hunched as he fell, his feet on the firing-step,
His neck against the back slope of the trench,
And the rest doubled up between, his head
Smashed like and egg-shell, and the warm grey brain
Spattered all bloody on the parados:
Had flashed a torch on his face, and known his friend,
Shot, breathing hardly, in ten minutes — gone!
Yet still God’s in His heaven, all is right
In the best possible of worlds. The woe,
Even His scaled eyes must see, is partial, only
A seeming woe, we cannot understand.
God loves us, God looks down on this out strife
And smiles in pity, blows a pipe at times
And calls some warriors home. We do not die,
God would not let us, He is too “intense,”
Too “passionate,” a whole day sorrows He
Because a grass-blade dies. How rare life is!
On earth, the love and fellowship of men,
Men sternly banded: banded for what end?
Banded to maim and kill their fellow men —
For even Huns are men. In heaven above
A genial umpire, a good judge of sport,
Won’t let us hurt each other! Let’s rejoice
God keeps us faithful, pens us still in fold.
Ah, what a faith is ours (almost, it seems,
Large as a mustard-seed) — we trust and trust,
Nothing can shake us! Ah, how good God is
To suffer us to be born just now, when youth
That else would rust, can slake his blade in gore,
Where very God Himself does seem to walk
The bloody fields of Flanders He so loves!
One writes to ask me if I’ve read
Of “the Jutland battle,” of “the great advance
Made by the Russians,” chiding — “History
Is being made these days, these are the things
That are worth while.”
Not to one who’s lain
In Heaven before God’s throne with eyes abased,
Worshipping Him, in many forms of Good,
That sate thereon; turning this patchwork world
Wholly to glorify Him, point His plan
Toward some supreme perfection, dimly visioned
By loving faith: not these to him, when, stressed
By some soul-dizzying woe beyond his trust,
He lifts his startled face, and finds the Throne
Empty, turns away, too drunk with Truth
To mind his shame, or feel the loss of God.
France, MARCH 1916.
Over the top! The wire’s thin here, unbarbed
Plain rusty coils, not staked, and low enough:
Full of old tins, though — “When you’re through, all three,
Aim quarter left for fifty yards or so,
Then straight for that new piece of German wire;
See if it’s thick, and listen for a while
For sounds of working; don’t run any risks;
About an hour; now, over!”
And we placed
Our hands on the topmost sand-bags, leapt, and stood
A second with curved backs, then crept to the wire,
Wormed ourselves tinkling through, glanced back, and dropped.
The sodden ground was splashed with shallow pools,
And tufts of crackling cornstalks, two years old,
No man had reaped, and patches of spring grass.
Half-seen, as rose and sank the flares, were strewn
The wrecks of our attack: the bandoliers,
Packs, rifles, bayonets, belts, and haversacks,
Shell fragments, and the huge whole forms of shells
Shot fruitlessly — and everywhere the dead.
Only the dead were always present — present
As a vile sickly smell of rottenness;
The rustling stubble and the early grass,
The slimy pools — the dead men stank through all,
Pungent and sharp; as bodies loomed before,
And as we passed, they stank: then dulled away
To that vague fœtor, all encompassing,
Infecting earth and air. They lay, all clothed,
Each in some new and piteous attitude
That we well marked to guide us back: as he,
Outside our wire, that lay on his back and crossed
His legs Crusader-wise: I smiled at that,
And thought on Elia and his Temple Church.
From him, at quarter left, lay a small corpse,
Down in a hollow, huddled as in a bed,
That one of us put his hand on unawares.
Next was a bunch of half a dozen men
All blown to bits, an archipelago
Of corrupt fragments, vexing to us three,
Who had no light to see by, save the flares.
On such a trail, so light, for ninety yards
We crawled on belly and elbows, till we saw,
Instead of lumpish dead before our eyes,
The stakes and crosslines of the German wire.
We lay in shelter of the last dead man,
Ourselves as dead, and heard their shovels ring
Turning the earth, then talk and cough at times.
A sentry fired and a machine-gun spat;
They shot a glare above us, when it fell
And spluttered out in the pools of No Man’s Land,
We turned and crawled past the remembered dead:
Past him and him, and them and him, until,
For he lay some way apart, we caught the scent
Of the Crusader and slide past his legs,
And through the wire and home, and got our rum.
(considered in the Augustan Manner)
Meanwhile the Toga (Tully’s phrase forgot)
Makes way for arms; the muses hover not
As they were wont o’er Oxford’s day and night
With calm userpance and self-conscious right:
Athene’s Owl once held prescriptive roost
In every Hall and College, and was used
With academic hoot to calm abode
From Eastern Iffley up to Southmoor Road:
The great War-eagle, subject of her ban,
Was weaken’d to a mild ey’d Pelican,
Peck’d his own breast, and dropp’d a joyful tear
When heroes compass’d fifteen Drills a year!
But now the sapient Fowl, with staring eyes
And loud ‘tu-whoo,’ upraids th’ unlistening skies:
To Pallas’ shoulder flies she, there to stand —
Mail’d is the shoulder, gauntleted the hand.
She drops abash’d, and wings along The High,
Calling to her brood with supplicating cry: —
“Come, come, my Owlets, as in former days,
Ye undergraduates and proud B.A.’s
Hear Carfax chime, nine hours of day are sped!
Why come ye not? — Of course, they’re all abed!”
Reliev’d she sigh’d, and seem’d to hear their snores,
To hear scouts hammering at a thousand doors,
To know those waking dreams of shadow’d pools,
Punts, girls, Eights, waistcoats, Proctors, dogs and Schools;
She seems to see the breakfast-table laid,
To scent the coffee and the marmelade,
His social song the genial kettle trolls,
To eggs and bacon warm before the coals,
A morning paper, decently inane,
Lies by the plate, to soothe the waken’d brain
Blest by such unobtrusive servile art
The days of comfort comfortably start.
“And yet I dreamt,” the shuddering creature said,
“My bowers were rifled and my children were fled;
The Heavens disdain’d me; Pallas’ self was cold,
Yet, when Mars ogled her, she did not scold;
With din of arms rang all th’ ethereal clime,
And tramp of deities a-marking time!
Yes, ’twas a nightmare; ah, peace-loving men,
That rise at nine and walk The High at ten,
To flaunt your socks or buy a straight-grained briar,
Then back to doze, with Livy, by the fire,
Here none need quake, where Sleep embraces all,
At shadow-armies, marching on the wall;
To fretted minds, untun’d by Life’s debate,
Ye are, indeed, a draught mandragorate!”
Thus far the Owl; then gently bends her flight
Where streaks of Keble vivify the sight;
Keble that rose, as Venus from the main,
In foamy spumings of a monstrous brain.
She reach’d the Parks; but what a sight was there!
Her swooning weight scarce can her pinions bear.
These peaceful Parks, where chattering nursemaids talk,
Where mail-carts flock, like Kensington’s Broad Walk,
Where, until now, Dons’ babies stumbling ran,
And consecrated all to Peter Pan —
Bristle with horrid arms, converted thus
From field of Peace to Campus Martius.
She scann’d this host of lithe, brown-feather’d fowl
For something with a likeness to an owl;
But there was none; she knew them eaglets all
Of her unmindful, heedless of her call.
In charge of sections or platoons they rant
Those previous souls before immersed in Kant;
Those who taught Pompey how to play his cards
Hope soon to fight their ‘Cæsar’ in the Guards.
Forlorn she sees the warlike feathers’ tips
In act of sprouting on the upper lips.
“Undone,” she shriek’d, “my nightmare all too true!”
Then off she flapp’d, with dismal “tu-whoo-whoo.”
You see this Tea, no milk or sugar in it,
Like peat-born water’s brown translucency,
Where dep and still it lingers through the shade
Of hazel curtains: Well, this liquid jewel,
This quiet, self-contained, smooth, rounded pool,
This glowing agaric, gold-threaded dusk,
Tranquilly dreaming, yet shot every way,
By rays of china-filtered sunlight, steam
Gliding in banks, whirling in eddied dances
Over the polished floor, now leaping off it
In restless clouds that win a kiss of the sun
Ere a death, like Semele’s, from the levin-brand,
Whisk them to dissolution; this brimmed cup,
Let us pretend that it’s a human mind
That we’ve created, for we poured it out,
Aye! and will spill it if we like — this mind,
A young man’s mind, clean, unadulterate,
And noble, too, as China-tea minds are —
None of your vulgar one-and-fourpennies —
We’ll govern as the gods do govern us.
He’s happy now, the man: wits clean, blood warm
And dim delightful clouds of sunlit visions,
Like steam, are born and die in loveliness
But he’s not fit to drink,
Needs milk and sugar, and we poured him out
The best of Tea in a biscuit-china cup,
Because we want to drink him; milk and sugar
Will rather stultify his Attic salts
And cloud the clearness of his intellect —
But we are gods, he’s ours and not his own,
So pass the milk-jug and the sugar-bowl!
Ah! how he lies and sweetly meditates,
Fond fool, those fair reflections in his mind;
Slow clouds and passing wings and leaves a-flicker
Like little yellow flames, on the poplar tree,
And weaves an intricate theology
From the silver tea-pot spout, that gave him birth,
Your hand and wrist, jewelled and braceleted,
Behind the pot, well-wishing deities
That made him out of love, will care for him,
And bring him home at last.
Pour in some milk!
His light is dimmed, for quite impermeable
Is this dull muddy fluid to the sun:
Where are his glinting sparkles, amber glows,
The glazed clearness of his mirror-like soul,
As sharp reflecting as Narcissus’ well?
His blood runs colder, no more leaping clouds
Of vaporous spring to gaze on the sun,
And perish gazing; he’s turned “practical”
(His own word that), must keep his energies
For the lukewarm days, when life is on the lees.
Pour in more milk: the cold white heaviness
Drops clean through all his being, re-ascends
Like monstrous births form wind impregnate wombs
In cloudy humours: like a witch’s cauldron
His brain boils up in vaporous melancholy,
And pallid phantoms hold in it high revel
Of tireless whirling orgy.
And a few bubbles of air, like noisome gas,
Come popping up, and dully burst; a sweet
Faint opiate apathy distils about
His goblin-haunted soul. Thick fatty blobs
Of yellow cream o’erlay his seething brain
And spread a general obscuration;
Drawing a veil betwixt him and the world
Of mirrorable beauty — a wrinkled rind,
Like skin on a hag’s cheek, that shows you still,
Crinkling and creasing in fantastic flickers,
The weary ebb and flow of his sick mind.
Come, let us end it!
Take that silver spoon,
And stab him to the soul; the agony
Of its entrance may confound his fond beliefs
Concerning us, who made him, and a flame
Of purifying hatred cauterise
His poisoned being, such a flame as we
Might wince at if, between our separate worlds
Were any commerce found.
Well struck! he’s dead;
And only posthumous nervous energy
Still sends the cream, and bubbles floating round.
Here is no form, nor vestige of a mind.
Drink him! You take no sugar? No, nor I,
Of course! Well, pour him on the grass, we two
Are not gods yet, to torture what we rule,
And then find joy in the mangled body. Tea!
Pour out more Tea, and let’s pretend no more.
All Gods are dead, even the great God Pan
Is dead at length; the lone inhabitant
Of my ever-dwindling Pantheon. Pan! Pan!
With what persistency I worshipped thee!
I saw a little crumpled clover leaf
Starring the trench side greenly, or I heard
A morning lark, and thou wast at my side
Smoothing thy child’s hair; ’gainst thy curled flank
Pillowing my loving head; when God and Christ
Abandoned me, thy universal temple
Was still my home, and I of all thy flock
Was welcome there; I think that I adored thee
As few have ever done.
My soul this spring
Thrilled with a fuller music to thy touch,
That seemed to me more loving than of old,
When most I needed love. O love, love, love!
Love in the ruins, love in toil and war,
Love in decay of loves, love in death!
I dreamed Love walked with me, Love crowned with life
Of flowers and bird and laughter of clear streams,
And the new springing wheat.
Now art thou changed
To a foul witch; thou are no Circe now,
But Lachesis or Atropos, that whippeth
The tortured trees to anguish, killeth joy
Of bird and leaf and flower. The cynic glance
Sours my old love to hatred; thy caresses
Cause me to shudder; all thy colour, song,
Are crude and heartless. Woo me! Woo me now
As I wooed thee once; but I think that I,
I shall walk on, head high, nor hear thee more.
Last night, O God, I climbed up to thy house
So loving-passionate towards thee, that not
The sharp loose flintstones hurt my feet, the blood
That the sword-grassed and low brambles drew
Whipping my ankles, flowed without a smart.
The moment lent me wings, and poired divine
And glowing ichor pelting through my veins
Chasing the slow cold blook; hot blinding torrents
Of irised glory beat upon my eyes,
And in my throbbing ears there did arise
The mighty shouts of Gods at festival.
There I, thy daughter, thy frail child, half-dead
From my great love to thee, choking with sobs
And panting lungs, may soul rapt to the sphere
Where quires the eternal music, my poor body
Affrighted that these ears should drink the hymns
Of Gods and Heroes, lowly on my knees
I crouched before thee, and resigned my life
To thee, o’erpowered by the trembling ecstasy
Of deity’s completest immanence.
I waited: hardly breathing, hour on hour
Through the peering night, wishing that all the strength
Of thine unshamèd myriad-formed desire
And manly fervour, might delight in me,
And like the sacred fire, seize me and so
Consume me utterly.
Oh, sweet renown
Of Danæ and Europa! Fierce white bull,
Would I have asked thee mercy? Mercy! I,
I would have bared my breast to horns and hoofs
And joyed to feel thy hot breath on my face
To have thee gore and trample me, to die
A kneaded quivering mass, thy splendid horns
And swinging dewlap dripping hot with blood.
Or hadst thou come as erst to Danæ — gold
In heavy stunning cateracts, red gold
Beating me down, staining the lilied skin,
As summer hailstorms ravish the frail vines,
Stamping them in churned mud: would I have whimpered
’Neath the tremendous lashes of they love?
Nay, as I fainted into happy death,
Smothered in the embraces of they golden arms,
A panting reef of gold, each several piece
Would seem to lie upon me like a rose,
And I should dream I was a child again
Buried in cowslips.
This was what I prayed.
I offered thee no empty sacrifices,
No locks of hair, nor entrails of a brute,
I offered thee myself, my loveliness,
I kept it all for thee, I was not timid,
Not coy before the King of Gods — and thou,
Thou drab uxorious tyrant, sate at feast,
Champing the meat, and craned thy neck, and leered
Upon me, naked on the ground, then beckoned
To Juno and in suasive wheedling tones
Murmuring in her ear, pointed to me,
Thy silly sentimental votary;
And all the gods flocked round, as once they did
Round Aphrodite, strained in golden mesh
To Ares’ flanks: “Loud laughter shook the sides
Of all the blessed gods” — The blessed gods! And I
Grew cold and fearful, my dishevelled hair
Was damp with dew, the fires of adoration
Flickered, burnt blue, and died in smoky doubt.
Thou had’st not come: once more thou had’st not come;
Once more I stumbled through the cold dead light
Of windy dawn, along the rocky path;
No little stone but stabbed now, no sly blade
Of grass or bramble but deliberately
Sawed through my skin until I cried.
Deep in the wild wood, durst not face the eyes
Of the village fold — but thee I could not fly.
Thou took’st a satyr’s form, from every shadow
Glinted thy grinning teeth, I heard thy laugh
In the cry of the magpie, mocking they poor dupe.
The burden of intolerable shame
That thou hast bound me, thou wilt not touch
To lighten with thy finger —
Oh, I came singing down the road
Whereon was nought perplext me,
And Pan with Art before me stroke,
And Walter Pater next me.
I garnered my “impressions” up,
Lived in each lovely feature,
“I burned with a hard gemlike flame”
And sensitized my nature.
We wandered up and down La Beauce
Along the castled river,
Where rarely came the deathly frost
To frighten us to a shiver.
Till at a corner of the way
We met with maid Bellona,
Who joined us so imperiously
That we durst not disown her.
My three companions coughed and blushed,
And as the time waxed later,
One murmured, pulling out his watch,
That he must go — ’twas Pater.
And very soon Art turned away
Huffed at Bellona’s strictures,
Who hurried us past dome and spire
And wouldn’t stay for pictures.
But old Pan with his satyr legs
Trotted beside us gamely,
Till quickening pace and rougher road
Made him go somewhat lamely.
The rents in the La Bassée road,
The cracks between the cobbling,
The wet communications trench,
They set poor Pan a-hobbling.
He couldn’t stand the shells and mud,
The sap-head or the crater,
He used to say the very rats
“Went some’ow agin Natur.”
When we were back behind Bethune
In comfortable billets,
We two would greet the advancing Spring
As she sailed up the rillets.
And lie ’neath the fantastic trees
To hear the thrushes quiring,
Till young Bellona smelt us out
And startled Pan with firing.
My heart bled for the kindly god
Who’d sought so long to serve me,
And so I sent him back again:
He prayed “Might heaven preserve me.”
I went unto the martial maid,
Who laughed to see me lonely,
“We’re rid of them at last,” she said,
“Now I’ll be honoured only.”
· · · · ·
And still we fare her road alone
In foul or sunny weather:
Bare is that road of man or god
Which we run on to-gether.
A whistle ’mid the distant hills
Shattered the silence grey,
She turned on me her great sad eyes,
Then lightly skimmed away.
I followed slow her flying feet
In idlest heaviness,
But oh! my heart it laught to see
Roar through the proud express.
In the after silence and the gloom
I found her there again,
And won three minutes more delight
Before the second pain.
In June 1915, having week-end leave from W……. Camp, in Surrey, I spent the Sunday with my sister roaming through the moors nad woods round Rickmansworth and the Chalfonts. We had not seen one another for many months, and in close conversation forgot all the world except our two selves. This experience of intimate aloofness reached its climax when, having missed the train at a wayside station — a chance which meant my being late in my return to Camp — we lay down in a field by the track and, waiting for the train, read ballads to one another. The sudden rediscovery of the verse quoted — a sixteenth century anonymous lyric — so intense, personal, and modern in its vivid cry, among the long objective ballads, startled us both back to the world of pains and desires, where we two must leave one another, and the return to School and I to Camp and the Army.
We lay upon a flowery hill
Close by the railway lines,
Apollo dusted gold on us
Between the windy pines.
We watched the London trains go by
Full of the weary folk,
Who travelled back that Sunday night
To six more days of smoke.
They stared out at the whirling fields,
And when they saw us two,
They turned their heads to follow us
Till we were snatched from view.
The year was at the summer’s spring
When grass grows fresh and long,
And flowers are more in bud than bloom,
And cuckoos slacken song.
The sainfoin and the purple vetch
Nodding above our lair
Sighed on the western breeze, whose might
Could barely stir our hair.
The hawkweed on our ballad book
Sprinkled its pollen fine,
And now and then a beetle dropped
And wandered through a line.
“Sir Patrick Spens” we loitered down,
“Tam Lin” and “Young Beichan,”
And almost felt the sunshine weep
For the “Lass of Lochroyan.”
Stanza on stanza endlessly
From her lips or from mine
Benumbed our dreaming souls, like drops
Of a Circean wine.
I watched her while she read to me,
As children watch their nurse,
Until my being throbbed to hear
This solitary verse:
“O western wind, when wilt thou blow
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ! That my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!”
· · · · ·
This little verse cut thorugh the twists
Of the dream-twinèd spell,
And “Robin Hood” sank back again
With the “Wife of Usher’s Well.”
And an illimitable desire
Quickened our souls with pain.
We knew that we were still at one
With the people in the train.