Dearest beloved Mother,—A second day in billets. To-morrow we go to the front. Darling, I can’t write to-day. Let us draw ever nearer to the eternal, let us remain devoted to our duty. I know how your thoughts fly to meet mine, and I turn mine towards the happiness of wisdom. Let us take courage; let me be brave among these young dead men, and be you brave in readiness. God is over us.
We are in billets after the great battle. And this time I saw it all. I did my duty; I knew that by the feeling of my men for me. But the best are dead. Bitter loss. This heroic regiment. We gained our object. Will write at more length.
(1st day in billet).
Dear beloved Mother,—I will tell you about the goodness of God, and the horror of these things. The heaviness of heart that weighed me down this month and a half past was for the coming anguish to be undergone in these last twenty days.
We reached the scene of action on the 17th. The preparation ceased to interest me; I was all expectation of the event. It broke out at three o’clock: the explosion of seven mines under the enemy’s trenches. It was like a distant thunder. Next, five hundred guns created the hell into which we leapt.
Night was coming on when we established ourselves in the positions we had taken. All that night I was actively at work for the security of our men, who had not suffered much. I had to cover great tracts, over which were scattered the wounded and the dead of both sides. My heart yearned over them, but I had nothing better than words to give them. In the morning we were driven, with serious loss, back to our previous positions, but in the evening we attacked again; we retook our whole advance; here again I did my duty. In my advance I got the sword of an officer who surrendered; after that I placed my men for guarding our ground. The captain ordered me to his side, and I gave him the plan of our position. He was telling me of his decision to have me mentioned, when he was killed before my eyes.
Briefly, under the frightful fire of those three days, I organised and kept going the work of supplying cartridges; in this job five of my men were wounded. Our losses are terrible; those of the enemy greater still. You cannot imagine, beloved mother, what man will do against man. For five days my shoes have been slippery with human brains, I have walked among lungs, among entrails. The men eat, what little they have to eat, at the side of the dead. Our regiment was heroic; we have no officers left. They all died as brave men. Two good friends—one of them a fine model of my own for one of my last pictures—are killed. That was one of the terrible incidents of the evening. A white body, splendid under the moon! I lay down near him. The beauty of things awoke again for me.
At last, after five days of horror that lost us twelve hundred men, we were ordered back from the scene of abomination.
The regiment has been mentioned in despatches.
Dear mother, how shall I ever speak of the unspeakable things I have had to see? But how shall I ever tell of the certainties this tempest has made clear to me? Duty; effort.
(sent off in the full swing of battle).
One word only. We are in the hands of God. Never, never, have we so needed the wisdom of confidence. Death prevails, but it does not reign. Life is still noble. Friends of mine killed and wounded yesterday and the day before. Dearest, our messengers may be greatly delayed.
In these latter days I have passed through certain hours, made decisive hours for me by the visibility of great and universal problems. We have now been for five days in the front line, with exceedingly hard work, hampered by the terrible mud. As our days have followed each other, and as my own struggle against the frightful sadness of my soul continued, the military situation was growing more tense, and the preparation for action was pushing on. Then came the announcement of the order of attack. There was only a day left—perhaps two days. It was then I wrote you two letters, I think those of the 13th and 14th; and really, as I was writing, I had within my heart such a plenitude of conviction, such a sweetness of feeling, as give incontrovertible assurance of the reality of the beautiful and the good. The bombardment of our position was violent; but nothing that man can do is able to stifle or silence what Nature has to say to the human soul.
One night, between the 14th and the 15th, we were placed in trenches that were raked by machine-guns. Our men were so exhausted that they were obliged to give place to another battalion. We were waiting in the wet and the cold of night when suddenly the notice came that we were relieved. We could not tell why. But we are here again in this village, where the men deluge their poor hearts with wine. I am in the midst of them.
Dear mother, if there is one thing absolute in human feeling, it is pain. I had lived hitherto in the contemplation of the interesting relations of different emotions, losing sight of the price, the intrinsic value, of life itself. But now I know what is essential life. It is that which clears the soul’s way to the Absolute. But I suffered less in that time of waiting than I am suffering now from certain companionships.
Dear beloved Mother,—I was at dinner when they came to tell me we were off. I knew it would be so; the counter-orders that put off the attack cost us the march of forty kilometres in addition to the fatigues we had to undergo in the first line. As we were leaving our sector I noticed the arrival of such a quantity of artillery that I knew well enough the pause was at an end. But the soul has its own peace. It is frosty weather, with a sky full of stars.
(5th day in the front line).
All is movement about us; we too are afoot. Even as the inevitable takes shape, peace revisits my heart at last. My beloved country is defiled by these detestable preparations of battle; the silence is rent by the preliminary gun-fire; man succeeds for a time in cancelling all the beauty of the world. But I think it will even yet find a place of refuge. For twenty-four hours now I have been my own self.
Dear mother, I was wrong to think so much of my ‘tower of ivory.’ What we too often take for a tower of ivory is nothing more than an old cheese where a hermit rat has made his house.
Rather, may a better spirit move me to gratitude for the salutary shocks that tossed me out of too pleasant a place of peace; let us be thankful for the dispensation which, during certain hours—hours far apart but never to be forgotten—made a man of me.
No, no, I will not mourn over my dead youth. It led me by steep and devious ways to the tablelands where the mists that hung over intelligence are no more.
(4th day in the front line).
Beloved,—After the days of tears and of rebellion of the heart that have so shaken me, I pull myself together again to say ‘Thy will be done.’ So, according to the power and the measure of my faculties, I would be he who to the very end never despaired of his share in the building of the Temple. I would be the workman who, knowing full well that his scaffolding will give way and who has no hope of safety, goes on with his stone-carving of decoration on the cathedral front. Decoration. I am not one who will ever be able to lift the blocks of stone. But there are others for that job. Yes, I am getting back into a little quiet thinking. The equable tranquillity I had hoped for is not yet mine; but I have occasional glimpses of that region of peace and light in which all things, even our love, is renewed and transfigured.
I am now at the foot of a peaked hill where Nature has brought the loveliest lines of design together. Man is hunting man, and in a moment they will be locked in fight. Meanwhile the lark is rising.
Even as I write, a strange serenity possesses me. Something—extraordinary comfort. Be it a human quality, be it a revelation from on high. All around me men are asleep.
(2nd day in the front line).
It may possibly be a great intended privilege for our generation to be a witness of these horrors, but what a terrible price to pay! Well, faith, eternal faith, is over all. Faith in an evolution, an Order, beyond our human patience.
In such hours as these one must perforce take refuge in the extra-human principle of sacrifice; it is impossible for mere humanity to go further.
Let go all poor human hope. Seek something beyond; perhaps you have already found it. As for me, I feel myself to be unworthy in such days to be anything more than a memory. I picked some flowers in the mud. Keep them in remembrance of me.
Courage through all, courage in spite of all.
Another breathing-space in which, almost at my last gasp, I get a brief peace. The little reviving breath comes again. I have had the good luck to be appointed corporal on guard in delightful quarters, where I am in command. Perfect spring weather. And what can I say of this Nature? Never before have I so fully felt her amplitude of life. Hours and seasons following one another surely, infallibly, unalterably, in unchanging unity; the looker-on has a glimpse of the immensity of the force that first set them afoot.
I had often known the delight of watching the nearer coming of a season, but it had not before been given to me to live in that delight moment by moment. It is so that one learns, without the help of any kind of science, a certain intuition, vague perhaps, but altogether indisputable, of the Absolute. There was a man of science, possibly a great one, who declared that he had not discovered God under his scalpel. What a shocking mistake for an able mind to make! Where was the need of a scalpel, when the joy and the thrill of our senses are all-sufficient to convince us of the purpose commanding our whole evolution? The poet watches the coming of the seasons as it were great ships that will, he knows, set sail again. At times the storm may delay them, but at their next coming they will bring with them the rich fragrance of the unknown coasts. A season coming again to our own shores seems to bring us delights which it has learnt by long travel.
Ah, dearest mother, if one could have again a retreat for the soul! O solitude, for those worthy to possess it! How seldom is it inviolate!
Most dear and most beloved,—I have your splendid letter of the first. Please don’t hesitate to write what you think I would call mere chatter. Your love and the absolute identity of our two hearts appear in all your letters. And that is all I really care for. Yet they tell me a thousand things that interest me too.
We are living through hours of heavy labour. My rank gives me respite now and then; but for the men it means five nights at a time without sleep, and this repeatedly.
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.