Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

in the morning (from a billet).

My very dear Mother,—Yesterday evening I left the first line trenches in broken weather which, in the night, after my arrival here, turned into rain. I watch it falling through the fog from my favourite window. If you like I will tell you of the wonders I saw yesterday.

From the position described in my letter of yesterday, can be seen, as I have often written to you, the most marvellous horizon. Yesterday a terrible wind rent a low veil of clouds which grew red at their summits. Perhaps the background of my ‘Haheyna’ will give you a faint idea of what it was. But how much more majestic and full of animation was the emotion I experienced yesterday.

The hills and valleys passed in turn from light to shade, now defined, now veiled, according to the movement of the mists. High up, blue spaces fringed with light.

Such was the beauty of yesterday. Shall I speak of the evenings that went before, when, on my way along the road, the moon brought out the pattern of the trees, the pathetic Calvaries, the touching spectacle of houses which one knew were ruins, but which night seemed to make stand forth again like an appeal for peace.

I am glad to see you like Verlaine. Read the fine preface by Coppée to the selected works, which you will find in my library.

His fervour has a spontaneity, I might almost say a grossness, which always repels me a little, just because it belongs to that kind of Catholic fervour which on its figurative side will always leave me cold. But what a poet!

He has been my almost daily delight both here and when I was in Paris; often the music of his Paysages Tristes comes back to me, exactly expressing the emotion of certain hours. His life is as touching as that of a sick animal, and one almost wonders that a like indignity has not withered the exquisite flowers of his poetry. His conversion, that of an artist rather than of a thinker, followed on a great upsetting of his existence which resulted from grave faults of his. (He was in prison.)

In the Lys Rouge Anatole France has drawn a striking portrait of him, under the name of Choulette; perhaps you will find we have this book.

In Sagesse the poems are fine and striking because of the true impulse and sincerity of the remorse. A little as though the cry of the Nuit de Mai resounded all through his work.

Our two great poets of the last century, Musset and Verlaine, were two unhappy beings without any moral principle with which to stake up their flowers of thought—yet what magnificent and intoxicating flowers.

Perhaps I tire you when I speak thus on random subjects, but to do so enables me to plunge back into my old life for a little while. Since I had the happiness of getting your letters, I have not taken note of anything. Do not think that distractions by the way make me forgetful of our need and hope, but I believe it is just the beautiful adornment of life which gives it, for you and me, its value.

I am still expecting letters from you after that of the 22nd, but I am sure to get them here in this billet. Thank you for the parcel you promise: poor mothers, what pains they all take!

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Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

The position we occupy is 45 metres away from the enemy. The roads of approach are curious and even picturesque in their harshness, emphasised by the greyness of the weather.

Our troops, having dodged by night the enemy’s vigilance, and come up from the valley to the mid-heights where the rising ground protects them from the infantry fire, find shelters hollowed from the side of the hill, burrows where those who are not on guard can have some sleep and the warmth of an Improvised hearth. Then, farther on, just where the landscape becomes magnificent in freedom, expanse, and light, the winding furrow, called the communication trench, begins. Concealed thus, we arrive in the trench, and it is truly a spectacle of war, severe and not without grandeur—this long passage which has a grey sky for ceiling, and in which the floor is covered over with recent snow. Here the last infantry units are stationed—units, generally, of feeble effective. The enemy is not more than a hundred metres away. From there continues the communication trench, more and more deep and winding, in which I feel anew the emotion I always get from contact with newly turned earth. The excavating for the banking-up works stirs something in me: it is as if the energy of this disembowelled earth took hold of me and told me the history of life.

Two or three sappers are at work lengthening the hollows, watched by the Germans who, from point to point, can snipe the insufficiently protected places. At this end the last sentry guards about forty metres.

You can picture the contrast between all this military organisation and the peace that used to reign here. Think what an astonishment it is to me to remember that where I now look the labourer once walked behind his plough, and that the sun, whose glory I contemplate as a prisoner contemplates liberty, shone upon him freely on these heights.

Then, too, when at dusk I come out into the open, what an ecstasy! I won’t speak to you of this, for I feel I must be silent about these joys. They must not be exposed: they are birds that love silence. . . . Let us confine our speech to that essential happiness which is not easily affrighted—the happiness of feeling ourselves prepared equally for all.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

Dearest Mother,—I didn’t succeed in finishing this letter yesterday. We were very busy. And now to-day it is still dark. From my dug-out, where I have just arrived in the front line, I send you my great love; I am very happy. I feel that the work I am to do in future is taking shape in myself. What does it matter if Providence does not allow me to bring it to light? I have firm hope, and above all I have confidence in eternal justice, however it may surprise our human ideas. . .

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

in the morning.

. . . Yesterday, in the course of that march, I lived in a picture by my beloved primitives. Coming out of the wood, as we went down a long road, we had close by us a large farm-house, plumed by a group of bare trees beside a frozen pool.

Then, in the under-perspective so cleverly used by my dear painters with their air of simplicity, a road, unwinding itself, with its slopes and hills, bound in by shrubs, and some solitary trees: all this precise, fine, etched, and yet softened. A little bridge spanning a stream, a man on horseback passing close to the little bridge, carefully silhouetted, and then a little carriage: delicate balance of values, discreet, yet well maintained—all this in front of a horizon of noble woods. A kind of grey weather which has replaced the enchantment, so modern in feeling, of the nuances of last Sunday, takes me back to that incisive consciousness which moves us as a Breughel and the other masters, whose names escape me. Like this, too, the clear and orderly thronging in Albert Dürer backgrounds.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

3.30 (back from the march).

I have just received a letter of the 16th and a card, and a dear letter of the 18th. These two last tell me of the arrival of my packet. How glad I am to hear that! For a moment I asked myself whether I was right to send you these impressions, but, between us two, life has never been and can never be anything but a perpetual investigation in the region of eternal truths, fervent attention to the truth each earthly spectacle presents. And so I do not regret sending you those little notes.

My worst sufferings were during the rainy days of September. Those days are a bitter memory to every one. We slept interlocked, face against face, hands crossed, in a deluge of water and mud. It would be impossible to imagine our despair.

To crown all, after these frightful hours, they told us that the enemy was training his machine-guns upon us, and that we must attack him. However, we were relieved; the explosion was violent.

As for my still unwritten verse, ‘Soleil si pale,’ etc., it relates to the 11th, 12th, and 13th of October, and, generally, to the time of the battle in the woods, which lasted for our regiment from September 22nd to October 13th. What struck me so much was to see the sun rise upon the victims.

Since then I have written nothing, but for a prayer which I sent you five or six days ago. I composed it while I was on duty on the road.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

Dear Mother,—Here we are arrived in our shelters in the second line. We lodge in earth huts, where the fire smokes us out as much as it warms us. The weather, which during the night was overcast, has given us a charming blue and rosy morning. Unfortunately the woods have less to say to me than the marvellous spaces of our front lines. Still, all is beautiful here.

Yesterday my day was made up of the happiness of writing to you; I went into the village church without being urged by a single romantic feeling nor any desire for comfort from without. My conception of divine harmony did not need to be supported by any outward form, or popular symbol.

Then I had the great good fortune to go with a carriage into the surrounding country. Oh, the marvellous landscape—still of blue and rosy colour, paled by the mist! All this rich and luminous delicacy found definite accents in the abrupt spots made by people scattered about the open. My landscape, always primitive in its precision, now took on a subtlety of nuances, a richness of variety essentially modern.

One moment I recalled the peculiar outer suburbs of Paris with their innumerable notes and their suppressed effects. But here there is more frankness and candour. Here everything was simply rose and blue against a pale grey ground.

My driver, getting into difficulty with his horse, entrusted the whip to me to touch up the animal: I must have looked like a little mechanical toy.

We passed by the Calvaries which keep guard over the Meuse villages, a few trees gathered round the cross.

 

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

9.30.

I write to you this morning from my favourite place, without anything having happened since last night that is worth recording—save perhaps the thousand flitting [Pg 90]nothings in the landscape. I got up with the sun, which now floods all the space with silver. The cold is still keen, but by piling on our woollen things we get the better of it on these nights in billets. There is only this to say: that to-morrow we go to our trenches in the second line, in the woods that are now thin and monotonous. Of our three stations, that is the one I perhaps like the least, because the sky is exiled behind high branches. It is more a landscape for R——, but flat, and spoilt by the kind of existence that one leads there.

Hostilities seem to be recommencing in our region with a certain amount of energy. This morning we can hear a violent fusillade, a thing very rare in this kind of war, in which attacks are generally made at night, the day being practically reserved for artillery bombardments.

Dear mother, let us put our hope in the strength of soul which will make petition each hour, each minute. . . .

. . . Yes, it gives me pleasure to tell you about my life; it is a fine life in so many ways. Often, at night, as I walk along the road where my little duty takes me, I am full of happiness to be able thus to communicate with the greatness of Nature, with the sky and its harmonious pattern of stars, with the large and gracious curves of these hills; and though the danger is always present, I think that not only your courage, your consciousness of the eternal, but also your love for me will make you approve of my not stopping perpetually to puzzle over the enigma.

So my present life brings extreme degrees of feeling, which cannot be measured by time. Feeling produced, for instance, by beautiful leafage, the dawn, a delicate landscape, a touching moon. These are all things in which qualities at once fleeting and permanent isolate the human heart from all preoccupations which lead us in these times either to despairing anxiety, or to abject materialism, or again to a cheap optimism, which I wish to replace by the high hope that is common to us all, and which does not rely on human events.

All my tenderness and constant love for grandmother; for you, courage, calm, perfect resignation without effort.