The Great War

from The Man Who Saw, an electronic edition

Preface

TWICE in his life the author of this little book has had the experience, so painful to a patriotic man, of differing from the majority of his countrymen on the moral issues involved in certain large and complex questions of international or imperial policy. In both cases he recorded his views and feelings very unambiguously in verse, incurring not a little odium and losing some friends. In both cases public opinion has since moved round into a position fundamentally much nearer his own than it had at first occupied. During the present war, with all its agonies and horrors, he has had at any rate the one private satisfaction of feeling not even the most momentary doubt or misgiving as to the perfect righteousness of his country's cause. There is nothing on earth of which he is more certain than that this Empire, throughout this supreme ordeal, has shaped her course by the light of purest duty. Her way has been the way of the just; and even if it be arguable that a base expediency would have dictated another path--even if it be held that by acquiescing in the initial assault upon France through Belgium she could have purchased a doubtful and transient safety by a sure and lasting infamy--none but a coward and a knave would at any time have counselled so hateful a bargain.

The author owes much to Germany. Though he cannot use her tongue, he has been nourished all his life upon her unmatched achievements in an art which speaks a universal language, the art of Music. To many this art perhaps appears non-moral, yet in the works of the greatest Germanic masters of harmony--and in Beethoven most of all--there is a strangely bracing moral quality, a power which seems to arm the soul for its battle with Circumstance. It must be plain that one who has the feeling of profound obligation to Germany which is here confessed could hardly have had any malice aforethought against her when hostilities began. He was in fact one of those Englishmen who were hardest to convince of her evil intentions, till these flamed forth into acts. When she crossed the fateful bourne one of his uppermost feelings was a purely human regret that a people whose spirit had helped and fed his own should have now taken their irrevocable stand against the forces of light and growth and ascension.

The contents of this volume include little that can be described as poems of action. The author desires his book to be considered as an intermittent commentary on the main developments, and some of the collateral phenomena, of the war. Respecting the arrangement of the poems he feels that a word of apology is due to the reader. Almost the last written is placed first; and though the contents of each separate section of the book are in the main arranged chronologically, the sections themselves pretend to no such order, but are really concurrent, not sequent. He regrets the resulting interruptions of continuity, but they were forced upon him as perhaps the lesser of two evils by the following considerations. Twenty-four of the poems are sonnets. That is to say, they are cast in a mould which, when used in the spirit and tradition of its stricter masters from Milton onwards, is not a loose aggregation of lines which chance to be fourteen in number, but one of the most rigorously exacting poetic forms; a form usually demanding from him who employs it no little mental concentration, and enjoining upon him a certain artistic asceticism such as forbids his being seduced into mere by-play of thought or emotion. This came to be rather generally understood amongst us in the early "'eighties," when the history of various poetic vehicles or instruments was perhaps more discussed than in later years; but at the present time it is quite a common thing for a sonnet to be referred to vaguely as its writer's "lines" on this or that, thus showing that whatever special labours may have gone to its shaping have been largely or entirely lost upon the preoccupied critic. A poet has a duty towards the offspring of his brain, even as toward the heirs of his body; and it is out of a perhaps pardonable regard for their interests and welfare, and as far as possible to secure for them their reasonable dues, that the author has thought fit to detach the sonnets in this volume from their companion poems, and give them a place apart. To dwell, though but for a moment, upon a matter so intensely literary, and at the same time so narrowly personal, may to some readers appear unseemly in a book concerned with the stupendous events now convulsing the world, and written under their shadow; but " Peace hath her victories," and even Poetry her toils, and the latter are not among the least arduous of human efforts.

It only remains for him to add that although many of these poems have already appeared--some of them under now-abandoned titles--in various newspapers, periodicals, and other publications,1 the editors of which are here thanked for permission to reprint them, not a few have since undergone a process for which " revision" would be a feeble word. Indeed, it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that in numerous cases the version originally published was little more than the ground-plan of what is offered in the ensuing pages.

Notes

1. The Times, the Daily News, the Morning Post, the Manchester Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Chronicle, the Evening News, the Westminster Gazette, the Observer, the English Review, the Weekly Dispatch, the Sunday Pictorial, the New York Herald, the New York Independent, the Nineteenth Century, the Saturday Review, and King Albert's Book.