JOHN MASEFIELD'S LETTERS FROM THE FRONT 1915-1917. Edited by Peter Vansittart. Franklin Watts. 307 pp. $18.95.
IF YOU ADMIRE the distinctively English character revealed in George Orwell's letters and books, then even the grimmest of these letters from the Front will give you an oddly ethnic pleasure -- the literary equivalent of a mug of slightly bitter warm beer. For here is the voice of your bluff hearty Englishman, full of scorn for pacifists, French women, most Americans, and all Germans, but brimming with pity for war-ravaged nature and the war- wrecked common soldiers and with a kind of awe at their endurance of horrific adversities. One puts this volume down wanting to read more of this man.
John Masefield (1878-1967) was appointed Poet Laureate in 1930 and served in that reputation-blighting office until his death. He wrote 100 books -- collections of poetry and essays, works of history and literary criticism, novels and plays -- yet you won't find any of his work in even good bookstores. These previously unpublished letters to his wife Constance may help to win him new readers, for the figure that emerges from them is profoundly attractive -- leagues more so than, say, Bertrand Russell in his acclaimed letters from roughly the same period. Where Russell affects an abstract compassion for all suffering humanity that is nobly impressive, Masefield's compassion is strictly tribal -- limited to that branch of humanity known as the Allies. It is his deeds that are impressive: "Let me know," reads a characteristic request, "by return if Wallingford can stand a cheque for s30. I want to spend some American money on an arm for a poor man at Juilly & an arm costs that if it's to be a serviceable one."
"Readers of the letters may jib at his wholesale indictment of Germans," says Peter Vansittart in his long and useful introduction. Indeed, they may be repelled at the moral persona of a man who can harbor sentiments like these:
"You feel that you could cut a Boche throat & desecrate a Boche grave & bomb a Boche town, & get a Boche officer down & gouge his eyes out."
"They are brutes to our wounded, they are beasts to our prisoners, they would wreck all our towns, sink all our ships, plunder all our homes & ravish our women, and if we don't stop them from doing this in this war be quite sure that they will try again in another."
Waxing enthusiastic over a new gas that will gag Germans to death and a new "flame thing" that will burn the flesh off their bones, the author of The Everlasting Mercy catches himself in mid-ferocity: "Imagine, our writing like this three years ago." Three years before he had not yet worked in a French military hospital, daily witnessing such sights as this:
"One (man) had been lying out for four days on the battlefield, without tending or food, one had a leg smashed into pieces, & another had been blown by a shell & had bits of rope in his face & no eyes & no nose, & his knee broken & his wrist, & another had been blown by a shell & then blown by a bomb & another had septic diorrhoea (sic) & is dying now."
The poet had acquired an education in atrocity: "Whenever I look at these poor fellows my soul boils." The war poets -- front- line soldiers like Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, and Rupert Brooke -- attained a kind of universal pity in their poems, but Masefield, 36 when the war broke out, could not get past the incontestable fact that all the killing had started "through the bloody damned lust of the Boche." His loathing was, as Vansittart says, "fairly representative" not only of British literary men but of the British public. Here is a revealing light on the political pressures that made for the punitive peace of Versailles.
HATING GERMANS, Masefield thought only a little better of Americans, or rather of America, which sat out nearly three years of the war in profitable neutrality. He spent most of 1916 giving lectures here -- pleading for medical aid -- and, though he had liked America years earlier, came away disgusted by the fever of money-making. "It is a land all false teeth & spectacles, the most tragical hollowness I know, the elaborate shell of a coffin, without the humanity of a corpse inside."
Letters From the Front contains vivid descriptions of Verdun, "heaped feet deep in flesh"; of new methods in plastic surgery; of French soldiers singing as they die; of numberless wrecked French villages, where there was "not even a recognizable heap of bones"; of Chicago, "which I shall always regard as hell on earth, and Pittsburgh, which is where the devil was born"; and other cities of the heartland where pro-German feeling ran high. Commissioned to write a history of the battle of the Somme, Masefield spent months in the spring of 1917 walking the whole 25-mile front. These letters detail his impressions of the still body-bestrewn battlefield and offer shrewd tactical appreciations mixed with the odd sardonic aside on military stupidity. ("It is terrible to see that the world has gone on 100 years without the soldier noticing.")
Missing from this volume are Masefield's letters from the Dardenelles, where he went in the summer of 1915 on his own money to work in the ambulance corps and about which he wrote a stirring war-time book, Gallipoli, which defended that campaign as "a great human effort." Perhaps he was too busy trying to save the lives of Australians to do any writing home. Turned down by the army for reasons of health, a famous poet on both sides of the Atlantic, Masefield yet had to be with the men of his tribe in their hour of need -- had to pitch in and make tables for their bedsides and crutches for them to walk on and be willing to burn their severed limbs and clean their bedpans and carry the men from the dank wards out into the sunlight where they might be healed. For if there was hate in Masefield, there was also deep patient love. "I lie awake & curse William (the Kaiser). . . for here are the best years of our marriage passing, with us miles apart, & you with the children and the household," he writes Constance.
In his eulogy in Westminster Abbey in 1967, Robert Graves called John Masefield "generous, courageous, unassuming, oversensitive." Masefield's hatred of "the Boche" sprang from an excess of that last quality, which made the war an agony to him but -- such is literature's revenge on life -- which also accounts for these moving letters.
Jack Beatty is senior editor of The Atlantic.