A Galsworthy typo?

white monkey

In my paper for the British Poetry of the First World War conference at Oxford at the end of this week, I’m discussing how war poets were represented in novels of the twenties. A key exhibit is Wilfrid Desert,  the Byronic and disillusioned (‘Bitter as quinine’) poet of Galsworthy’s The White Monkey.

Galsworthy gives us just one example of his verse (perhaps unwisely, since it’s not a very good poem). It’s this one, where he imagines a deserter talking back to the officers at his 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.'”

What niggles me is line 8. Both my Penguin edition and the Project Gutenberg etext have ‘learn’ – but shouldn’t it be ‘earn’?
‘Learn’ really doesn’t make much sense.

I’m now debating with myself – when I quote the poem in my paper, do I say ‘earn’ or ‘learn’?

I think I’m going with ‘earn’.

Or maybe not.




  1. Bill
    Posted September 2, 2014 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Yet Michael Mont had only just corrected that proof. Is Galsworthy suggesting he wasn’t paying attention?

  2. Tom Deveson
    Posted September 2, 2014 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    I think it has to be ‘earn’ for the sense.

    ‘Snug’ in line 5 is also interesting. It almost feels like an echo of Sassoon’s ‘smug’ within a similar statement of contrasts, though here in a very different voice:

    ‘..You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
    Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
    Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
    The hell where youth and laughter go.’

    Snug and Smug can sometimes chime but Galsworthy’s Kipling-and-water pastiche [or rather Desert’s] isn’t the right place for it to work.

    • Bill
      Posted September 3, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      Actually the whole phrase “snug beauty” doesn’t really fit the tone of the poem and looks as if something like “smug bloody” would fit better with the adopted tone.

      Which, from everything said elsewhere about Desert’s poetry, seems as if it was uncharacteristic of him.

      • Posted September 3, 2014 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

        My own suspicion is that this was Galsworthy’s own best shot at a war poem, and he gave it to Desert, thinking it rather better than it was. The example of Desert’s poetry given in the later novel, ‘Flowering Widerness’ is as bad – really unsubtle and strident.

  3. janevsw
    Posted September 2, 2014 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    I’d be quite interested to see whether the original MS had learn or earn. As someone who quite often writes longhand I find that it’s easy to repeat a letter from the end of one word at the beginning of the next, especially if it makes another word… so “you’l learn” ends up only half-corrected…

  4. Bill
    Posted September 4, 2014 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    I have always been bemused about what Galsworthy is attempting to use the figure of Desert for. It seems to have no poetic coherence but simply to take some features of ‘a poet’ as seen in middlebrow terms. The model cannot be any of the surviving war poets and follows no apparent school of poetry I can fathom. The poet his later character reminds me of (and I think the Desert of ‘Flowering Wilderness’ is a largely different character than the one in earlier volumes) is, in fact, Roy Campbell (although I am not sure why, given the ideological gulfs between them). But, of course, for some reason by this point he has become Galsworthy’s answer to Harry Feversham, rather than anything to do with poetry.

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