They say we change, we men that come out here.
But do they know how great that change?
And do they know how darkly strange
Are those deep tidal waves that roll
Within the currents of the soul,
Down in the very founts of life,
Could anything be more different from the writings of P. G. Wodehouse than this extract from ‘Before Ginchy: September 1916’? Yet the poet is Ernest Armine Wodehouse, his older brother. Armine, as he was always known, is rather a shadowy figure in the Wodehouse biographies. Robert McCrum describes him as ‘lazy, fat, chatty and highly intelligent’, but does not say much about how that intelligence was manifested. I’ve tried to find out more about him.
Two years older than Pelham Grenville, Armine was able to take full advantage of the educational opportunities denied to P. G. Wodehouse by his father’s financial difficulties. At Corpus Christi College, Oxford he obtained a first class degree in classics. He had literary ambitions, and attained prestigious recognition when he won the University’s Newdigate Prize for his poem Minos in 1902, when his younger brother was still just beginning to get humorous squibs and short pieces accepted by humorous magazines and boys’ papers.
In 1911, Armine Wodehouse went to India as a professor of English at the Central Hindu College, Varanasi. Here he met the charismatic Annie Besant, and became deeply interested in Theosophy, the esoteric philosophy which aroused much interest among early twentieth-century intellectuals and artists; its most celebrated literary adherent was W. B. Yeats. Armine joined the Theosophical Society of India and became its organising secretary, but soon returned to England in order to be one of the tutors of Krishnamurti, the young man believed by Theosophists to be destined for future leadership of the world. When Krishnamurti returned to India, Wodehouse stayed behind to run the society’s magazine, The Herald of the Star (though Krishnamurti remained its nominal editor).
Aged thirty-five in 1914, Armine was an early wartime recruit; he became an officer in the elite and hard-fighting Scots Guards. Armine’s emotional and intellectual commitment in the War was strong; when he wrote an article in The Herald of the Star condemning conscientious objectors, this provoked a reply from Bertrand Russell, the intellectual leader of the pacifist movement, who disputed Armine’s contention that that there was something peculiarly subjective and individual about conscientious objection.
Armine Wodehouse was not only a committed soldier; he was still a poet, His war verses appeared in the Daily Telegraph and the Fortnightly Review, as well as in The Herald of the Star, and his collection On Leave:Poems & Sonnets. With a foreword by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch was published in 1917 by Elkin Matthews.
The critical consensus that has compiled the canon of Great War poetry has mostly admired the poets (Graves, Sassoon, Owen, Gurney and others) who had learnt from the Georgians about the poetical effectiveness of colloquial vocabulary, neat forms and an ironic stance. Armine Wodehouse’s poems are old-fashioned by Georgian standards; he often has a formality of tone, sometimes uses archaisms and abstractions – has, in other words, the sort of poetic habits that Sassoon knocked out of Owen’s writing at Craiglockhart. Sometimes his style is very much that of Newdigate prize verse, circa 1902. Despite this, his poems have something to say, and are well worth looking at.
Armine’s most impressive poem is ‘Before Ginchy: September 1916’. (Ginchy was a German-held village taken by British and French troops on September 16th as part of the push north of the Somme.) The poem conveys his disgust at the sight of a dead soldier, with images of disease and horror:
Yon poisonous clod,
(Look! I could touch it with my stick!) that lies
In the next ulcer of this shell-pock’d land
To that which holds me now;
Yon carrion, with its devil-swarm of flies
That scorn the protest of the limp, cold hand,
Seeming half-rais’d to shield the matted brow;
Those festering rags whose colour mocks the sod;
And, O ye gods, those eyes!
Those staring, staring eyes!
The horrific depiction of a corpse is a familiar enough trope in war poetry. Less usual is what follows, Armine Wodehouse’s examination of his own reaction to the troubling image he has presented; he asks why he remains untroubled by it, unmoved.
How can I gaze unmov’d on sights like these?
What hideous enervation bids me sit
Here in the shelter of this neighbour pit,
Untroubled, unperturbèd, at mine ease,
And idly, coldly scan
This fearsome relic of what once was man?
The inability to feel an appropriate emotion is a sign that he has been changed by war, which has had an effect on the ‘darkly strange’ currents of the poet’s soul. This is a theme quite rare in poetry of the Great War, I think. Armine’s is neither patriotic poetry nor a protest against war, but an exploration of his own vulnerability, and a poem of self-discovery.
His theosophical turn of mind is reflected, I think, in the poems in which he finds it difficult to relate the banality of war to its greater purpose. This is a theme of ‘There was War in Heaven’, which depicts the modern soldier :
Weary and cold and wet,
Or writhing in fierce pain,
Or simply bored – beneath that varied strain,
He has no time to set
His labours on a vaster stage,
To glimpse behind the fretting day’s routine
The shadow of a mightier scene,
The glory and the anguish of an Age.
The poet has been tempted to feel ‘A thought of pain, / That this was all in vain!’ and
‘We are but pigmy actors in a plot
Which doth concern us not’
Then he reflects that this immersion in a daily round that hides larger issues or greater purposes is not unique to war, but is actually part of the normal human condition.
To do, to do, to do and not to see,
Such is the lot of frail mortality!
In another poem, ‘A Battlefield Thought’, he brings theosophical ideas to bear on the War:
Oft had I mused how mortal men do dwell,
Caged in a false world and a true – of sense,
And of an inward felt experience –
But it is only in battle,
when every quivering nerve made tense,
Becomes a string for high intelligence
to speak through
That he comes to understand:
For Earth is heaven, when sweeten’d with love’s blessing,
And Earth is Hell, when rack’d with hate and pain.
They are two forces, ever inward pressing
And Earth the vanishing-point between the twain
In ‘Dust unto Dust’ the banality of modern industrial war produces a desire for its opposite. Armine (perhaps influenced by all those early-war poems that laid on the mediaeval imagery thickly) imagines knights ‘in harness of bright gold / And jewelled casque and plume of gorgeous stain’, and comes up with the curious thought:
How beautiful, when they lay dead and cold,
Their bodies must have shown upon the plain!
The dead of modern warfare have no such glamour:
‘Here, mid this joyless waste of shell-ploughed clay
There lives a thirst for colour rich and gay
So desperate in the soul, that even – ’tis true! –
She’ll half blame death for mocking earth’s sad hue
With leaves so pale, so withered, and so grey.
Armine Wodehouse has a distinct gift, and I can’t think of any other Great War poems that are quite like these, which is why I’ve quoted them here. He seems to have made his way into very few anthologies (with the honourable exception of Vivien Noakes’s excellent Voices of Silence). I feel that his best poems should be better known.
My interest in Armine, though, came of, course, from an interest in P.G., who spent the War years very differently, inventing American musical comedy, in partnership with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern. Armine’s career makes one wonder – what would P.G.Wodehouse have become had he too been formed by an Oxford education, rather than in the hard school of periodical journalism?
Note: Armine Wodehouse often indented lines, sometimes in intricate patterns. I can’t manage that very well on this blog, so all quotations from poems are left-justified. Sorry.