Galsworthy and Wilfrid Desert

Anyone looking for a nice little thesis topic could do worse than ‘Representations of War Poets in Novels of the Twenties and Thirties’.
Some obvious candidates for inclusion:
* Heritage, in John Buchan’s Huntingtower
* Johnny Potter, in Rose Macaulay’s Potterism

Everyone knows that school of poetry by heart now; of course it was particularly fashionable just after the war. Johnny Potter did it much like other men. Anyone can do it. One takes some dirty, horrible incident or sight of the battle-front and describes it in loathesome detail, and then, by way of contrast, describes some fat and incredibly bloodthirsty woman or middle-aged clubman at home, gloating over the glorious war. I always thought it a great bore, and sentimental at that.

* Bertie Carvel in Patrick Hamilton’s Rope

enormously affected in speech and carriage. He brings his words out not only as though he is infinitely weary of all things, but as though articulation is causing him some definite physical pain which he is trying to circumvent by keeping his head and body perfectly still.

But the one I’ve been thinking about recently is Wilfred Desert, who appears in various volumes of Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga.
He is introduced in The White Monkey as disillusioned to the point of amorality.

Illusion is off. No religion and no philosophy will satisfy me – words, all words. I still have my senses – no thanks to them; am still capable – I find – of passion; can still grit my teeth and grin; have still some feeling of trench loyalty, but whether real or just a complex, I don’t know. I am dangerous, but not so dangerous as those who trade in words, principles, theories, and all manner of fanatical idiocy to be worked out in the blood and sweat of other men. The war’s done one thing for me – converted life to comedy. Laugh at it – there’s nothing else to do!

Galsworthy (perhaps unwisely) offers us an example of his verse:

THE COURT MARTIAL

“See ’ere! I’m myde o’ nerves and blood
The syme as you, not meant to be
Froze stiff up to me ribs in mud.
You try it, like I ‘ave, an’ see!

“‘Aye, you snug beauty brass hats, when
You stick what I stuck out that d’y,
An’ keep yer ruddy ‘earts up—then
You’ll learn, maybe, the right to s’y:

“‘Take aht an’ shoot ’im in the snow,
Shoot ’im for cowardice! ‘E who serves
His King and Country’s got to know
There’s no such bloody thing as nerves.’”

Fleur, the heroine of the second Forsyte trilogy, is so attracted by Desert’s Byronic presence that she is almost seduced away from her husband.
He turns up again in Flowering Wilderness, the eighth Forsyte novel. Dinny, a young relative of Fleur’s meets him one day by the new statue of Foch outside Victoria Station. He is now even more glamorously anguished than before (‘Unhappy from deep inward disharmony, as though a
good angel and a bad were for ever seeking to fire each other out‘). What is more, his life has taken on an unexpected complication.

***In this novel, Galsworthy wants to explore twentieth-century attitudes to faith, patriotism and duty, and to do so, touches on a rather twenty-first century problem: the question of how someone brought up in a Christian tradition, but who has himself no religious convictions, should react to a militant Islamist, for whom religion is everything. He picks up the story of a melodramatic Victorian poem, Theology in Extremis, by Sir Alfred Comyn Lyall. The poem’s subtitle is ‘A Soliloquy That May Have Been Delivered In India, June, 1857’ – at the time, that is, of the great Mutiny.
The speaker of this dramatic monologue is a captive of fanatical Muslims, who declare that unless he renounces Christianity and converts to Islam, he will be killed. The man has no firm religious faith:

Yet I could be silent and cheerfully die,
If I were only sure God cared;
If I had faith, and were only certain
That light is behind that terrible curtain.

He realises that if he accepts death, it will be for no good result; his story will never be told. Yet die he must:

Yet for the honour of English race,
May I not live or endure disgrace.
[….]
I must be gone to the crowd untold
Of men by the cause which they served unknown,
Who moulder in myriad graves of old;
Never a story and never a stone
Tells of the martyrs who die like me,
Just for the pride of the old countree.

In place of Christian faith, national pride makes him accept martyrdom.

Galsworthy, realising that the world has moved on from a time when the maintenance of British prestige, at whatever cost, was obviously the duty of every Englishman, puts his war poet, Desert, into a similar position. Desert is a brave man, with an M.C., but is one of those whom the War years have made especially hostile to the claims of religion:

It isn’t only that he doesn’t believe in Christianity, he actually hates any set forms of religion, he thinks they divide mankind and do more harm and bring more suffering than anything else. And then [….] the war left him very bitter about the way lives are thrown away, simply spilled out like water at the orders of people who don’t know what they’re about.

While travelling in Darfur, Desert ran into a nest of ‘fanatical Arabs, remaining from the Mahdi times.’ The chief of them had him brought into his tent and offered him his life if he would embrace Islam.
Desert rationally sees that to be a martyr for a religion he neither professes nor respects would be absurd. He accepts the bargain, though with misgivings.
When he returns to England, rumours are already spreading, and he increases them by publishing his best, most deeply-felt poem, ‘The Leopard’, which describes his experience.
He is among a society of token Christians (even the novel’s priest is not really a believer, but continues as a clergyman because he believes -sincerely – that it is socially useful). Is apostasy still a sin? There is a feeling that he has let down the British reputation in the East – but this is something that by the twenties only a rather old-fashioned minority really care about. Dinny, the girl to whom he becomes engaged, belongs to a family committed to the ideal of service (in the Army, the Church, or politics); they feel personal sympathy with Desert, but recognise that he has put himself, and any future wife, beyond the pale.
Some things matter more than they seem to, seems to be Galsworthy’s message, as he shows the man being punished by people who had never been tested by being put in so difficult a situation. And disillusioned cynicism may be a philosophy that satisfies an individual, but when he needs to be connected to society – by marriage, for example – it may not turn out to be enough.

4 Comments

  1. Roger
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    While travelling in Darfur, Desert ran into a nest of ‘fanatical Arabs, remaining from the Mahdi times.’ The chief of them had him brought into his tent and offered him his life if he would embrace Islam.
    Desert rationally sees that to be a martyr for a religion he neither professes nor respects would be absurd. He accepts the bargain, though with misgivings.

    However, muslim theology says that coerced apostasy or coversion is not valid, so by the logic of islam Desert has not become a muslim.

    • Posted March 12, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

      Wikipedia tells me that while some have argued that Islamic law thoretically forbids the practice, ‘Muhammad and his followers did practice forced conversion of the Pagan Arabs during Muhammad’s conquest of Arabia. When Muhammad marched on Mecca, Abu Sufyan was ordered to convert to Islam or lose his head. Muhammad also refused to allow the inhabitants of Taif to surrender until they agreed to convert to Islam.
      ‘In practice, forced conversions have been very common throughout all Islamic history, although it was but rarely official government policy. Noted cases include the conversion of Samaritans to Islam at the hands of the rebel Ibn Firāsa, conversions in the 12th century under the Almohad dynasty of North Africa and Andalusia, as well as in Persia under the Safavid dynasty where Sunnis were converted to Shi’ism] and Jews were converted to Islam. A form of forced conversion became institutionalized during the Ottoman Empire in the practice of devşirme, a human levy in which Christian boys were seized and collected from their families (usually in the Balkans), enslaved, converted to Islam, and then trained for high ranking service to the sultan.
      Writing in the early thirties, Galsworthy may have remembered that ‘During the Moplah Riots of 1921 in Kerala, Muslim Mappilas forcibly converted thousands of Hindus to Islam and killed all those who refused to apostatise.’


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