Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

My dear beloved Mother,—After the sleepless night in our billet, we had to supply a working-party all the following night. So I have been sleeping up till the very moment of writing to you. Sleep and Night are refuges which give life still one attraction.

Mother dear, I am living over again the lovely legend of Sarpedon; and that exquisite flower of Greek poetry really gives me comfort. If you will read this passage of the Iliad in my beautiful translation by Lecomte de l’Isle, you will see that Zeus utters in regard to destiny certain words in which the divine and the eternal shine out as nobly as in the Christian Passion. He suffers, and his fatherly heart undergoes a long battle, but finally he permits his son to die, and Hypnos and Thanatos are sent to gather up the beloved remains.

Hypnos—that is Sleep. To think that I should come to that, I for whom every waking hour was a waking joy, I for whom every moment of action was a thrill of pride. I catch myself longing for the escape of Sleep from the tumult that besets me. But the splendid Greek optimism shines out as in those vases at the Louvre. By the two, Hypnos and Thanatos, Sarpedon is lifted to a life beyond his human death; and assuredly Sleep and Death do wonderfully magnify and continue our mortal fate.

Thanatos—that is a mystery, and it is a terror only because the urgency of our transitory desires makes us misconceive the mystery. But read over again the great peaceful words of Maeterlinck in his book on death, words ringing with compassion for our fears in the tremendous passage of mortality.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

Last night, on coming back to the barn, drunkenness, quarrels, cries, songs and yells. Such is life!. . . But when morning came and the wakening from sleep still brought me memories of this, I got up before the time, and found outside a friendly moon, and the great night taking wing, and a dawn which had pity on me. The blessed spring day gilds everything and scatters its promises and hopes.

Dear, I was reflecting on Tolstoi’s title, War and Peace. I used to think that he wanted to express the antithesis of these two states, but now I ask myself if he did not connect these two contraries in one and the same folly—if the fortunes of humanity, whether at war or at peace, were not equally a burden to his mind. By all means let us keep faithful to our efforts to be good; but in spite of ourselves we take this precept a little in the sense of the placards: ‘Be good to animals.’ How hard it is, in the midst of daily duties, to keep guard upon oneself.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

Dear Mother,—I go on with this letter in the billet, where the great worry of accumulated work fills up the void which Melancholy would make her own.

Dark days have come upon me, and nothingness seems the end of all, whereas all that is in my being had assured me of the plenitude of the universe. Yes, devotion, not to individuals but to the social ideal of brotherhood, sustains me still. Oh, what a magnificent example is to be found in Jesus and in the poor. That righteous aristocrat, showing by His abhorrent task the infinite obligation of altruistic duty, and teaching, above all, that no return of gratitude should be demanded. . . . To my experience of men and things I owe this tranquillity of expecting nothing from any one. Thus duty takes an abstract form, deprived of a human object.

An unspeakable sunrise to-day! Another spring draws near. . . . I want to tell you about our three days in the first line.

Snow and frost. We went down the slopes leading to our emplacement in the village. The night was then so beautiful that it moved the heart of every soldier to see it. I could never say enough about the fine delicacy of this country. How can I explain to you the chiselled effect, allied to the dream-like mists, with the moon soaring above? For three days my night-service took me straight to the heart of this purity, this whiteness.

Tarnished gold-work of the trees. And, in spite of the mist, many colours, rose and blue.

There are hours of such beauty that those who take them to themselves can hardly die. I was well in front of the first lines, and never did I feel better protected. This morning, when I came, a pink and green sunrise over the blue and rosy snow; the open country marked with woods and covered fields; far off, the distance, in which the silvery Meuse fades away. O Beauty, in spite of all!

2nd Letter

Dear beloved Mother,—Your letter of the 29th has this moment come to the billet. A nameless day, a day without form, yet a day in which the spring most mysteriously begins to stir. Warm air in the lengthening days; a sudden softening, a weakening of Nature. Alas, how sweet this emotion would be if it could be felt outside this slavery, but the weakness which comes ordinarily with spring only serves here to make burdens heavier.

Dear mother, how glad I am to feel the sympathy of those who are far away. Ah, what sweetness there is!

I am delighted by the Reviews; in an admirable article on Louis Veuillot I noticed this phrase: ‘O my God, take away my despair and leave my grief!’ Yes, we must not misunderstand the fruitful lesson taught by grief, and if I return from this war it will most certainly be with a soul formed and enriched.

I also read with pleasure the lectures on Molière, and in him, as elsewhere, I have viewed again the solitude in which the highest souls wander. But I owe it to my old sentimental wounds never to suffer again through the acts of others. My dearly loved mother, I will write to you better to-morrow.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

My very dear Mother,—I have your dear letters of the 26th and 27th; they do bring new life to me.

Up till now, our first-line emplacement, which this time is in the village, has been favoured with complete calm, and I have known once more those hours of grace when Nature consoles me.

My situation has this special improvement, that the drudgery I do now is done at the instance of the general good, and no longer at the dictation of mere routine.

 

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

in the morning sun.

The hard and splendid weather has this marvellous good—that it leaves in its great pure sky an open door for poetry. Yes, all that I told you of that beautiful time of snow came from a heart that was comforted by such triumphant beauty.

In the Reviews you send me I have read with pleasure the articles on Molière, on the English parliament, on Martainville, and on the religious questions of 1830. . . .

Did I tell you that I learnt from the papers of the death of Hillemacher? That dear friend was killed in this terrible war.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

afternoon.

After two bad nights in the billet owing to the lack of straw, the third night was interrupted by our sudden departure for our emplacement in the second line.

Superb weather, frost and sun.

Great Nature begins again to enfold me, and her voice, which is now powerful again, consoles me.—But, dear, what a hole in one’s existence! Yes, since my promotion I have lived through moments which, though less terrible, recalled the first days of September, but with the addition of many blessings. I accept this new life, with no forecast of the future.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

Your dear letter of the 20th reached me last night. You must not be angry with me if occasionally, as in my letter of the 13th, I lack the very thing I am always forcing myself to acquire. But I ask you to consider what can be the thoughts of one who is young, in the fulness of productiveness, at the hour when life is flowering, if he is snatched away, and cast upon barren soil where all he has cherished fails him.

Well, after the first wrench he finds that life has not forsaken him, and sets to work upon the new ungrateful ground. The effort calls for such a concentration of energy as leaves no time for either hopes or fears. It is the constant effort at adaptation, and I manage it, except only in moments of the rebellion (quickly suppressed) of the thoughts and wishes of the past. But I need my whole strength at times for keeping down the pangs of memory and accepting what is.

I was thinking of the sad moments that you too endure, and that was why I encouraged you to an impersonal idea of our union. I know how strong you are, and how prepared for this idea. Yes, you are right, we must not meet the pain half-way. But at times it is difficult to distinguish between the real suffering that affects us, and that which is only possible or imminent.

Mind you notice that I have perfect hope and that I count on prevailing grace, but, caring more than anything to be an artist, I am occupied in drawing all the beauty out, in drawing out the utmost beauty, as quickly as may be, none of us knowing how much time is meted to us.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

. . . As for me, I have no desires left. When my trials are really hard to bear, I rest content with my own unhappiness, without facing other things.

When they become less hard, then I begin to think, to dream, and the past that is dear to me seems to have that same remote poetry which in happier days drew my thoughts to distant countries. A familiar street, or certain well-known corners, spring suddenly to my mind—just as in other days islands of dreams and legendary countries used to rise at the call of certain music and verse. But now there is no need of verse or music; the intensity of dear memories is enough.

I have not even any idea of what a new life could be; I only know that we are making life here and now.

For whom, and for what age? It hardly matters. What I do know, and what is affirmed in the very depths of my being, is that this harvest of French genius will be safely stored, and that the intellect of our race will not suffer for the deep cuts that have been made in it.

Who will say that the rough peasant, comrade of the fallen thinker, will not be the inheritor of his thoughts? No experience can falsify this magnificent intuition. The peasant’s son who has witnessed the death of the young scholar or artist will perhaps take up the interrupted work, be perhaps a link in the chain of evolution which has been for a moment suspended. This is the real sacrifice: to renounce the hope of being the torch-bearer. To a child in a game it is a fine thing to carry the flag; but for a man, it is enough to know that the flag will yet be carried. And that is what every moment of great august Nature brings home to me. Every moment reassures my heart: Nature makes flags out of anything. They are more beautiful than those to which our little habits cling. And there will always be eyes to see and cherish the lessons of earth and sky.

Eugáene Emmanuel Lemercier

The Argonne, France

The Argonne, France

. . . I have sent you a few verses; I don’t know what they are worth, but they reconciled me to life. And then our last billet was really wonderful in its beauty. Water running over pebbles . . . vast, limpid waters at the end of the park. Sleeping ponds, dreaming walks, which none of this brutality has succeeded in defiling. To-day, sun on the snow. The beauty of the snow was deeply moving, though certainly we had some bad days, days on which there was nothing for us but the wretched mud.

It seems that we won’t be coming back to this pretty billet. Evidently they are making ready for something; the regularity of our winter existence has come to an end.

2 o’clock.

Splendid weather, herald of the spring, and we can make the most of it, because in this place we are allowed to put our noses out of doors.

I write badly to-day. I can only send you my love. This war is long, and I can’t even speak of patience.

My only happiness is that during these five and a half months I have so often been able to tell you that everything was not ugliness. . . .