Last year I gave a paper at the Oxford War Poetry conference, about the ways that war poets were depicted in novels of the twenties. I gave it the title ‘I too am a murderer’(a quotation from Patrick Hamilton’s Rope) – but I had no idea then that there was a 1921 in novel in which a war poet commits a murder.
The first chapter of The House by the River by A.P. Herbert introduces us to Stephen Byrne, a poet very much in the mould of Rupert Brooke:
[H]e was the treasure of England. He was a real poet. Men had heard of him before the war; but it was in the years of war that he had come to greatness. He was one of a few men who had been able in a few fine poems to set free for the nation a little of the imprisoned grandeur, the mute emotion of that time. But none of all those young men, who found their voices suddenly in the war and spoke with astonishment the splendid feelings of the people, had so touched the imagination, had so nearly expressed the tenderness of England, as Stephen Byrne. At twenty-seven he was a great man — a national idol.
Unlike Brooke, Stephen Byrne did not die in the War; he lives near the river, in a small village-like community, not far from Hammersmith. One day, while his pregnant wife is in bed upstairs, tired and unwell, he sees Emily, their housemaid, coming down from the bath, ‘a warm young female creature, plump and comely, and scantily clad’. Properly noticing her for the first time, he amuses himself by making a pass. She resists and starts to scream, so he has to quieten her:
With a throaty growl of exasperation he put both hands at the soft throat of Emily and shook her, jerkily exhorting her as he did so, “Will—you—be quiet—you—silly—little fool—will you—be quiet—you—fool—you’ll—have—everybody—here—you …”
He only meant to shake her—he did not mean to squeeze with his hands—did not know that he was squeezing—mercilessly. He was between Emily and the dining-room, and in the dim light of the hall he could not see the starting, horrible eyes, the darkening flesh of poor Emily Gaunt.
Horrified by what he has done, he asks his friend, John Egerton, to help. Together they put the body in a sack and try to lose it in the river. Herbert tells this episode grippingly, making us very aware of the difference between soldier and civilian. Byrne had ‘had seen too much of death in the war to be much distressed by the fact of death’, whereas Egerton, a wartime civil servant, not a soldier, feels a ‘helpless horror’ when seeing the evidence of violence.
I won’t spoil the rest of the novel by disclosing more of the story, except to say that it is (as you might already have guessed) innocent John on whom suspicion falls when the crime is discovered.
The presentation of Stephen Byrne is interesting, especially when you remember that Herbert himself was a war poet, author of lines like ‘Beaucourt Revisited’:
I wandered up to Beaucourt; I took the river track
And saw the lines we lived in before the Boche went back;
But Peace was now in Pottage, the front was far ahead,
The front had journeyed Eastward, and only left the dead.
And I thought, how long we lay there, and watched across the wire,
While guns roared round the valley, and set the skies afire!
But now there are homes in Hamel and tents in the Vale of Hell,
And a camp at suicide corner, where half a regiment fell.
The new troops follow after, and tread the land we won,
To them ’tis so much hill-side re-wrested from the Hun
We only walk with reverence this sullen mile of mud
The shell-holes hold our history, and half of them our blood.
Herbert put much of his own history into that of Harry Penrose, the unfortunate hero of The Secret Battle (1919), condemned to death for a failure of nerve. He puts something of himself into Stephen Byrne, too, especially his poet’s apprehension of the moods of the river. And he gives Byrne one of his own bright ideas when, at a musical party, he and his choir of friends sing the impressive rhetoric of Asquith’s declaration of war intentions to the Quadruple Chant used for psalms:
“We shall not sheathe the sword” (pause for breath), “which we hàve not/lightly/drawn,//until Belgium has recovered all and MORE than/all that/she has/sacrificed.
“Until France is adequàte/ly sec/urèd//against the/menace/of ag/gression.”
(The accentuation of ate in “adequately” was the one blot on the pointing; it was unworthy of Mr. Asquith.)
“Until the rights of the smaller nationàlit/-ies of/Europe//are placed upon an ùnass/aila/ble found/ation/.”
(That was a grand stanza; the Hammerton singers gave a delicious burlesque of the country choir gabbling with ever-growing speed through the first words, and falling with a luxurious snarl on their objective, the unfortunate accented syllable al.)
“And until the military dòmin/ation of/ Prussia//is whòlly and/final/ly dest/royèd.”
In his autobiography, Georgian Adventure, Douglas Jerrold (with Herbert in the Royal Naval Division) describes this setting as one of the musical items that enlivened their journey towards Gallipoli.
Byrne dedicates himself to his poetry with a writer’s necessary egotism – but in relation to other people this egotism becomes a destructive selfishness; he consistently fails to consider them as having needs distinct from his own. Perhaps Herbert is once again writing the man he does not want to become; again it is a moment’s unmeant error that ruins someone’s life.
As a poet of the twenties Byrne does not entirely convince. He is certainly not a modernist, and seems not even to have been influenced by the realism of the Georgians. After the War he writes a poem in praise of Chivalry, and eventually he turns a self-justifying version of the story of his life into a sort of mediaeval pageant, whose characters bear the names of:
old knights and fine ladies, moving generously through an age of chivalry and gallant ways; and the deeds he had done were invested with so rich a romance by the grace of and imagery and humanity of his verse, and by the gracious atmosphere of knighthood and adventure and forest battles which he wrapped about them, that they were beautiful. They were poetry.
Maybe. But this doesn’t sound like the poetry of the age of Eliot.
The book is a gripping read, and definitely recommended, even though it is not perfect. There are set-piece digressions, about the dancing craze, or about the river, that are fine in themselves but annoyingly hold up the narrative. And there is some uncertainty of tone, as Herbert moves between melodrama and social satire.
I had sometimes wondered how the author of the deeply-felt Secret Battle became the light humourist of Punch and the Misleading Cases. This book is a sort of half-way house; part thoughtful study of motivations, part thriller, part easy satire on a suburban community. As he went on, of course, Herbert became increasingly involved in public issues, and novels like Holy Deadlock are written with the express intention of producing reform of the law. He was an interesting man – worth a proper biography, I’d say.