The Great War

from The Poems of Robert W. Sterling, an electronic edition

Robert Sterling's career at Oxford was cut short after two years by the outbreak of war. But these two years had sufficed to create an impression of him which will endure. As a poet he was known only to a few till after his Newdigate Poem had been written. One evening, at the urgency of friends, he read this poem to them, and what they now discovered in its author they felt to be the corollary of what they had seen before. Doubtless they understood him better through it, and found therein a new interpretation of him; but because it was so true an expression of himself, they realized that their experience of him was the best interpretation of his poetry.

For this reason more than any other, it may be valuable to say something however brief about his life; and to attempt, imperfectly enough, to communicate the impression, itself fragmentary, which he left upon those who had begun to know and love him.

He came to Oxford from Sedbergh. Here he had spent four years of his school-life; and entering into its various activities with a boy's enthusiasm had grown to be a very part of the place--' He could see and put into words something of what Sedbergh meant to us'. For he never became absorbed in one aspect to the exclusion of others. His bent was literary, and he had a refined classical taste, illustrated especially in his Latin Verses. ' His interest in literature alone', wrote one who shared a study with him, 'was quite enough to keep him busy and happy. Like a true workman he put his whole soul into what he did.' But ' at the same time he enjoyed to the full every part of school-life, especially the various societies, and could always find some common ground for talk with any one. Although a classical man, he would if he wished even discuss chemistry or any other science, and would build up an argument from first principles in a most amazing way.' And, on the other hand, he felt intensely the rapture of the open air, of the fresh wind upon the fells; had learnt the beauty of the fells themselves, and the spirit which for lover's eye they embodied. He understood also, and shared, the strenuous enjoyment of the football field, as afterwards of the river; but ' perhaps his happiest hours were spent quietly wandering over the Sedbergh hills, now leisurely fishing some lonely beck, now lying on the grass in the sunshine, watching the clouds drift over Winder'1 .

In 1912 he left for Oxford. 'I remember', wrote another and older friend, 'the delight of his cavalier soul when he found himself King Charles' scholar at Pembroke.' Hither the allegiance he had given his school was extended, not transferred. His presence still breathed the freshness of his school-days. This boyishness and simplicity he never lost; nor did it become, as is sometimes the case, overlaid with a veneer of intellectualism. He had no conceit of knowledge, and this was because whatever he learnt he learnt well, so that it became an intrinsic part of himself. For the same reason it was characteristic of him to be conscious of his own ignorance; besides, he realized better than most the infinity of knowledge. And so, while a superficial view might fail to detect peculiar intellectual gifts, those who could see below the surface discovered that he had thought on things. There was no precocity, but rather almost a maturity in the midst of simplicity. He had in fact a clearer vision than most around him: he could see in the things that matter aspects which escaped the common observation. But in this there was more than perception, at least in the ordinary sense of the word: there was an imaginative force which could reclothe past scenes in their romantic dress, create in fancy beauties un-experienced, or dream an ideal future fairer than to-day. He had indeed in him something of the visionary, an indication of which may be seen in the love which, from his school-days, he had for Blake; he used to wish that he could draw, feeling that so only--by artistic as well as literary expression, as in Blake--could he give adequate expression to his ideas. A serenity, and at times a certain dreamy wistfulness, were peculiarly typical of him, and the quiet strength that comes of a firm hold upon a principle of life. Generally he would be the most silent of a party, and yet on occasions, as when some cherished conviction was challenged, he would burst into an ardour that took his hearers by storm.

For linked indissolubly with this clearness of vision was--what has already been implied--a depth of affection. In everything characteristic of him these two elements, clear vision and deep affection, united and grew intenser in the union. At school they were expressed in that appreciation of natural beauty which bespeaks not love alone but intimacy; at Oxford he found a new world of beauty--Oxford's spirit. Sensitive to her influence, he began to see nature in a wider context: the Beautiful, which hitherto he had found especially in physical nature, he now more than before sought and found in human nature also. Only a nature like his, both affectionate and discerning, could have had both the will and the power to look beyond his friends' shortcomings and to love them no less. For his affection was not due to ignorance of, still less indifference to, their defects. It was because he had a keen enough sympathy to see and believe in what was best in them; and so it was that herein he was not false but faithful to his ideals.

It is hardly surprising that there was a catholicity about his friendships: his rooms in college were a centre where men of very various types would gather; quite simply and generously he grappled them to him. 'He could convey a rare warmth of welcome in one exclamatory syllable; whilst in his mouth the use of a Christian name at some surprise meeting or in farewell was a thing not lightly forgotten.'There was the same glad responsiveness to simple human joy as to the joy of the country, and a tenderness of sympathy with trouble as precious as it is rare.

Just because it was deep, his affection was neither ostentatious nor capricious. He never courted friendships: his friends grew around him; and they learnt that the force which had drawn them to him became stronger with closer contact. ' His personality could always inspire older friendships with a fresh enthusiasm,' wrote one who knew him both at Sedbergh and Oxford.Indeed, inspiration rather than attraction is the true description of his influence. His friendship ennobled, because his nature was less mundane,more spiritual, than that of the ordinary mortal. 'He went about life in the same manner as did the knight-errant of old, who would give his purse to the first wandering beggar he met, and forget all about it in a moment. Material things were taken as they came; if they did not come he wasted little time in trying to get them.' This was written of him as known at school, but it is true of his character throughout: those who associated with him realized that here was finer fabric than any dross of earth. Even a casual acquaintance could hardly fail to mark the dignity of character sounding in the clear crisp voice, or writ fair upon the features. Here surely beauty within and without combined into that harmony in which Greeks of old saw the ideal of human life.

With calm clear gaze

He saw and loved the beauty earth can show:

The love was true, as it was young, no phase

That passed, but strengthening with inward glow,

Which woke in others fire. He drew from

Heav'n

What only love can take, a vision whole

Of things sublime. The richer life thus giv'n

Back to his God he gave: his gift--his soul.

What followed after he left Oxford for the Long Vacation of 1914 must be told briefly.Early in August, on the declaration of war, he applied for and received a commission. The same allegiance that he had freely given to his school, his college, and his friends, he now gave to his country at need. The rest of the year he spent training in Scotland. Probably during this time he wrote out fair the poem ' Maran' printed at the end of this volume. It seems that he had begun it in his school-days, working at it afterwards from time to time, and that he was intensely fond of intoning its verses to himself. It was left unfinished, but he evidently wished it preserved in case he did not return, as is suggested by the explanatory note which he prefixed to it.1

In February 1915 he went out to France. 'It was a great relief, he wrote, 'to get out here after kicking my heels toy-soldiering at home.' But he adds, ' I've been longing for some link with the normal universe detached from the storm. It's funny how trivial incidents sometimes are seized as symbols by the memory; but I did find such a link about three weeks ago. We were in trenches in woody country (just S. E. of Ypres). The Germans were about eighty yards away, and between the trenches lay pitiful heaps of dead friends and foes. Such trees as were left standing were little more than stumps, both behind our lines and the enemy's. The enemy had just been shelling our reserve trenches, and a Belgian battery behind us had been replying, when there fell a few minutes' silence; and I, still crouching expectantly in the trench, suddenly saw a pair of thrushes building a nest in a " bare ruin'd choir " of a tree, only about five yards behind our line. At the same time a lark began to sing in the sky above the German trenches. It seemed almost incredible at the time, but now, whenever I think of those nest-builders and that all but " sightless song ",they seem to represent in some degree the very essence of the Normal and Unchangeable Uni- verse carrying on unhindered and careless amid the corpses and the bullets and the madness....I suppose Kipling meant something when he said that Life runs large on the Long Trail. In the sense I take it. It runs large out here, not only for the reason of which you so eloquently remind me--the inspiration of a Cause, but because Death has become its insistent and intruding neighbour.' This was written within a week of his own death, and about a month after the death in battle of his own closest friend.This friend and he had gone up together for commissions the August before, but had been assigned them in different regiments, stationed far apart. They went abroad at different times,but once, for one dramatic hour, ten days before the friend's death, they were granted what had hitherto been denied them: they met unexpectedly. 'As always, we didn't know who was going to relieve us, and we were sitting in our quarters--what remained of the shell-shattered lodge of the chateau, playing cards by candle-light, awaiting events, when------knocked at the door and came in. . . . I walked about with him for about an hour and a half in the chateau grounds, stray bullets from the firing-line whistling around us,... but I had no idea I was afterwards going to treasure every incident as a precious memory all my life.' Those who had learnt something of the power of such a friendship, can best understand the desolation of his grief when his friend was killed. 'I think I should go mad', he wrote, ' If I didn't still cherish some faith in the justice of things, and a vague but confident belief that death cannot end great friendships.' It may be that death came to confirm that faith. He fell one evening after holding his trench throughout the day. It was Saint George's Day.

The latter half of these poems--from 'Oxford, First Vision' to the end--have not been published before. Of the others: ' The Burial of Sophocles' won the Newdigate Prize of 1914;' Early Poems' (except the first two) and ' To B. W.' appeared in school magazines--one (' Hail') in The Wasp the Evans House magazine, the rest in The Sedberghian.

The Sonnet immediately following is printed by kind permission of its author and The Glasgow Herald.

Notes

1. ' Winder', which is mentioned more than once in the poems, is the fell nearest to the school, rising some 1,100 feet above it. It is the most conspicuous and characteristic object in the view from the playing-fields, and has always been regarded by Sedberghians as one source of their school's inspiration. A new boy is not considered initiated till he has climbed Winder.

1. This note is reproduced immediately before the text of ' Maran '. With certain passages of this poem he associated other poems, which were apparently meant to interpret its meaning. A facsimile of this association is included with the text in the hope that it may serve this object. (Towards its end, ' before him' and ' behind left' reproduce a clearly unintentional transposition, as may be seen by reference to the end of ' Maran', where the associated poems are printed separately, as written out elsewhere.)