LETTERS OF A SOLDIER
You do not know the things that are taught by him who falls. I do know.
(Letter of October 15, 1914.)
LETTERS OF A SOLDIER
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY A. CLUTTON-BROCK
AND A PREFACE BY ANDRE CHEVRILLON
AUTHORISED TRANSLATION BY V.M.
LONDON CONSTABLE AND COMPANY LTD 1917
Printed in Great Britain
PAGE INTRODUCTION vii
PREFACE BY ANDRE CHEVRILLON 3
I have been asked to write an Introduction to these letters; and I do so, in spite of the fact that M. Chevrillon has already written one, because they are stranger to me, an Englishman, than they could be to him a Frenchman; and it seems worth while to warn other English readers of this strangeness. But I would warn them of it only by way of a recommendation. We all hope that after the war there will be a growing intimacy between France and England, that the two countries will be closer to each other than any two countries have ever been before. But if this is to happen we must not be content with admiring each other. Mere admiration will die away; indeed, some part of our present admiration of the French has come from our failure to understand them. There is a surprise in it which they cannot think flattering, and which ought never to have been. Perhaps they also have been surprised by us; for it is certain that we have not known each other, and have been content with those loose general opinions about each other which are the common result of ignorance and indifference.
What we need then is understanding; and these letters will help us to it. They are, as we should have said before the war, very French, that is to say, very unlike what an Englishman would write to his mother, or indeed to any one. Many Englishmen, if they could have read them before the war, would have thought them almost unmanly; yet the writer distinguished himself even in the French army. But perhaps unmanly is too strong a word to be put in the mouth even of an imaginary and stupid Englishman. No one, however stupid, could possibly have supposed that the writer was a coward; but it might have been thought that he was utterly unfitted for war. So the Germans thought that the whole French nation, and indeed every nation but themselves, was unfitted for war, because they alone willed it, and rejoiced in the thought of it. And certainly the French had a greater abhorrence of war even than ourselves; how great one can see in these letters. The writer of them never for a moment tries or pretends to take any pleasure in war. His chief aim in writing is to forget it, to speak of the consolations which he can still draw from the memories of his past peaceful life, and from the peace of the sky and the earth, where it is still unravaged. He is, or was, a painter (one cannot say which, for he is missing), and the moment he has time to write, he thinks of his art again. It would hardly be possible for any Englishman to ignore the war so resolutely, to refuse any kind of consent to it; or, if an Englishman were capable of such refusal, he would probably be a conscientious objector. We must romanticise things to some extent if we are to endure them; we must at least make jokes about them; and that is where the French fail to understand us, like the Germans. If a thing is bad to a Frenchman, it is altogether bad; and he will have no dealings with it. He may have to endure it; but he endures gravely and tensely with a sad Latin dignity, and so it is that this Frenchman endures the war from first to last. For that reason the Germans, after their failure on the Marne, counted on the nervous exhaustion of the French. It was a favourite phrase with them—one of those formulae founded on knowledge without understanding which so often mislead them.—Their formula for us was that we cared for nothing but football and marmalade.—But reading these letters one can understand how they were deceived. The writer of them seems to be always enduring tensely. It is part of his French sincerity never to accept any false consolation. He will not try to believe what he knows to be false, even so that he may endure for the sake of France. Yet he does endure, and all France endures, in a state of mind that would mean weakness in us and utter collapse in the Germans. The war is to him like an incessant noise that he tries to forget while he is writing. He does not write as a matter of duty, and so that his mother may know that he is still living; rather he writes to her so that he may ease a little his desire to talk to her. We are used to French sentiment about the mother; it is a commonplace of French eloquence, and we have often smiled at it as mere sentimental platitude; but in these letters we see a son's love for his mother no longer insisted upon or dressed up in rhetoric, but naked and unconscious, a habit of the mind, a need of the soul, a support even to the weakness of the flesh. Such affection with us is apt to be, if not shamefaced, at least a little off-hand. Often it exists, and is strong; but it is seldom so constant an element in all joy and sorrow. The most loving of English sons would not often rather talk to his mother than to any one else; but one knows that this Frenchman would rather talk to his mother than to any one else, and that he can talk to her more intimately than to any woman or man. One can see that he has had the long habit of talking to her thus, so that now he does it easily and without restraint. He tells her the deepest thoughts of his mind, knowing that she will understand them better than any one else. That foreboding which the mother felt about her baby in Morris's poem has never come true about him:
'Lo, here thy body beginning, O son, and thy soul and thy life, But how will it be if thou livest and enterest into the strife, And in love we dwell together when the man is grown in thee, When thy sweet speech I shall hearken, and yet 'twixt thee and me Shall rise that wall of distance that round each one doth grow, And maketh it hard and bitter each other's thought to know?'
This son has lived and entered into the strife indeed; but the wall of distance has not grown round him; and, as we read these letters, we think that no French mother would fear the natural estrangement which that English mother in the poem fears. The foreboding itself seems to belong to a barbaric society in which there is a more animal division of the sexes, in which the male fears to become effeminate if he does not insist upon his masculinity even to his mother. But this Frenchman has left barbarism so far behind that he is not afraid of effeminacy; nor does he need to remind himself that he is a male. There is a philosophy to which this forgetfulness of masculinity is decadence. According to that philosophy, man must remember always that he is an animal, a proud fighting animal like a bull or a cock; and the proudest of all fighting animals, to be admired at a distance by all women unless he condescends to desire them, is the officer. No one could be further from such a philosophy than this Frenchman; he is so far from it that he does not seem even to be aware of its existence. He hardly mentions the Germans and never expresses anger against them. The worst he says of them almost makes one smile at its naive gentleness. 'Unfortunately, contact with the German race has for ever spoilt my opinion of those people.' They are to him merely a nation that does not know how to behave. He reminds one of Talleyrand, who said of Napoleon after one of his rages: 'What a pity that so great a man should have been so badly brought up.' But there was malice in that understatement of Talleyrand's; and there is none in the understatement of this Frenchman. He has no desire for revenge; his only wish is that his duty were done and that he could return home to his art and his mother. To the philosophy I have spoken of that would seem a pitiable state of mind. No one could be less like a Germanic hero than this French artist; and yet the Germans were in error when they counted on an easy victory over him and his like, when they made sure that a conscious barbarism must prevail over an unconscious civilisation.
These letters reveal to us a new type of soldier, a new type of hero, almost a new type of man; one who can be brave without any animal consolations, who can endure without any romantic illusions, and, what is more, one who can have faith without any formal revelation. For there is nothing in the letters more interesting than the religion constantly expressed or implied in them. The writer is not a Catholic. Catholic fervour on its figurative side, he says, will always leave him cold. He finds the fervour of Verlaine almost gross. He seems afraid to give any artistic expression to his own faith, lest he should falsify it by over-expression, lest it should seem to be more accomplished than it is. He will not even try to take delight in it; he is almost fanatically an intellectual ascetic; and yet again and again he affirms a faith which he will hardly consent to specify by uttering the name of God. He is shy about it, as if it might be refuted if it were expressed in any dogmatic terms. So many victories seem to have been won over faith in the modern world that his will not throw down any challenge. If it is to live, it must escape the notice of the vulgar triumphing sceptics, and even of the doubting habits of his own mind. Yet it does live its own humble and hesitating life; and in its hesitations and its humility is its strength. He could not be acclaimed by any eager bishop as a lost sheep returning repentant to the fold; but he is not lost, nor is the universe to him anything but a home and the dear city of God even in the trenches.
His expression of this faith is always vague, tentative, and inconclusive. He is certain of something, but he cannot say what; yet he knows that he is certain, although, if he were to try to express his certainty in any old terms, he would reject it himself. He knows; but he cannot tell us or himself what he knows. There are sentences in which, as M. Chevrillon says, he speaks like an Indian sage; but I do not think that Indian philosophy would have satisfied him, because it is itself satisfied. For he is in this matter of faith a primitive, beginning to build a very small and humble temple out of the ruins of the past. He has no science of theology, nothing but emotions and values, and a trust in them. They are for a reality that he can scarcely express at all; and yet he is the more sure of its existence because of the torment through which he is passing. He uses that word torment more than once. The war is to him a martyrdom in which he bears witness to his love, not only for France, but also for that larger country which is the universe. The torment makes him more sure of it than ever before; it heightens his sense of values; and he knows that what matters to a man is not whether he is joyful or sorrowful, but the quality of his joy and his sorrow. There are times when, like an Indian sage, he thinks that all life is contemplation; but this thought is only the last refuge of the spirit against a material storm. He is not one of those who would go into the wilderness and lose themselves in the depths of abstract thought; he is a European, an artist, a lover, one for whom the visible world exists, and to whom the Christian doctrine of love is but the expression of his own experience. For a century or more our world, confident in its strength, its reason, its knowledge, has been undermining that doctrine with every possible heresy. In sheer wilfulness it has tried to empty life of all its values. It has made us ashamed of loving anything; for all love, it has told us, is illusion produced by the will to live, or the will to power, or some other figment of its own perverse thought. And now, as a result of that perversity, the storm breaks upon us when we seem to have stripped ourselves of all shelter against it. The doctrine of the struggle for life becomes a fact in this war; but, if it were true, what creature endowed with reason would find life worth struggling for? Certainly not the writer of these letters. He fought, not only for his country, but to maintain a contrary doctrine; and we see him and a thousand others passing through the fiercest trial of faith at the moment when the mind of man has been by its own perverse activity stripped most bare of faith. So he cannot even express the faith for which he is ready to die; but he is ready to die for it. A few years ago he would have been sneered at for the vagueness of his language, but no one can sneer now. The dead will not spoil the spring, he says No, indeed: for by their death they have brought a new spring of faith into the world.
LETTERS OF A SOLDIER
AUGUST 1914-APRIL 1915
PREFACE BY ANDRE CHEVRILLON
PREFACE BY ANDRE CHEVRILLON
The letters that follow are those of a young painter who was at the front from September  till the beginning of April ; at the latter date he was missing in one of the battles of the Argonne. Are we to speak of him in the present tense or in the past? We know not: since the day when the last mud-stained paper reached them, announcing the attack in which he was to vanish, what a close weight of silence for those who during eight months lived upon these almost daily letters! But for how many women, how many mothers, is a grief like this to-day a common lot!
In the studio and amid the canvases upon which the young man had traced the forms of his dreams, I have seen, piously placed in order on a table, all the little papers written by his hand. A silent presence—I was not then aware what manner of mind had there expressed itself—revisiting this hearth: a mind surely made to travel far abroad and cast its lights upon multitudes of men.
It was the mind of a complete artist, but of a poet as well, that had lurked under the timid reserves of a youth who at thirteen years of age had left school for the studio, and who had taught himself, without help from any other, to translate the thoughts that moved him into such words as the reader will judge of. Here are tenderness of heart, a fervent love of Nature, a mystical sense of her changing moods and of her eternal language: all those things of which the Germans, professing themselves heirs of Goethe and of Beethoven, imagine they have the monopoly, but of which we Frenchmen have the true perception, and which move us in the words written by our young countryman for his most dearly beloved and for himself.
It is singularly touching to find in the spiritual, grave, and religious temper of these letters an affinity to the spirit of many others written from the front. During those weeks, those endless months of winter in the mud or the frost of the trenches, in the daily sight of death, in the thought of that death coming upon them also, closing upon them to seal their eyes for ever, these boys seem to have faced the things of eternity with a deeper insight and a keener feeling, as each one, in the full strength of life and youth, dwelt upon the thought of beholding the world for the last time:
'Et le monde allait donc mourir Avec mes yeux, miroir du monde.'
Solemn thought for the man who has watched through a long night in some advance-post, and who, beyond the grey and silent plain where lurks the enemy, sees a red sun rise yet once more upon the world! 'O splendid sun, I wish I could see you again!' wrote once, on the evening of his advance upon French ground, a young Silesian soldier who fell upon the battlefield of the Marne, and whose Journal has been published. Suddenly breaks in this mysterious cry in the course of methodical German notes on food and drink, stages of the march, blistered feet, the number of villages set on fire. And in how many French letters too have we found it—that abrupt intuition! It is always the same, in many and various words: in those of the agriculturist of the Seine-et-Marne, whom I could name, and who for perhaps the first time in his life takes an interest in the sunset; in those of the young middle-class Parisian who had seemed incapable of speech save in terms of unbelief and burlesque; in those of the artist who utters his emotion in poetry and lifts it up to the heights of stoical philosophy. Through all unlikenesses, in the hearts of all—peasant, citizen, soldier, German schoolmaster—one prevailing thought is revealed; the living man, passing away, feels, at the approach of eternal night, an exaltation of his sense of the splendour of the world. O miracle of things! O divine peace of this plain, of these trees, of these hillsides! And how keenly does the ear listen for this infinite silence! Or we hear of the immensities of night where nothing remains except light and flame: far off, the smouldering of fires; far up, the sparkle of stars, the shapes of constellations, the august order of the universe. Very soon the rattle of machine-guns, the thunder of explosives, the clamour of attack will begin anew; there will again be killing and dying. What a contrast of human fury and eternal serenity! More or less vaguely, and for a brief moment, there comes into passing life a glimpse of the profound relation of the simple things of heaven and earth with the mind of him who contemplates them. Does man then guess that all these things are indeed himself, that his little life and the life of the tree yonder, thrilling in the shiver of dawn, and beckoning to him, are bound together in the flood of universal life?
* * * * *
For the artist of whom we are now reading, such intuitions and such visions were the delight of long months in the trenches. Under the free sky, in contact with the earth, in face of the peril and the sight of death, life seemed to him to take a sudden and strange expansion. 'From our life in the open air we have gained a freedom of conception, an amplitude of thought, which will for ever make cities horrible to those who survive the war.' Death itself had become a more beautiful and a more simple thing; the death of soldiers on whose dumb shapes he looked with pious eyes, as Nature took them back into her maternal care and mingled them with her earth. Day by day he lived in the thought of eternity. True, he kept a feeling heart for all the horror, and compassion for all the pain; as to his duty, the reader will know how he did that. But, suffering 'all the same,' he took refuge in 'the higher consolations.' 'We must,' he writes to those who love him and whom he labours—with what constant solicitude!—to prepare for the worst, 'we must attain to this—that no catastrophe whatsoever shall have power to cripple our lives, to interrupt them, to set them out of tune. . . . Be happy in this great assurance that I give you—that up till now I have raised my soul to a height where events have had no empire over it.' These are heights upon which, beyond the differences of their teachings and their creeds, all great religious intuitions meet together; upon which illusions are no more, and the soul rejects the pretensions of self, in order to accept what is. 'Our sufferings come from our small human patience taking the same direction as our desires, noble though they may be. . . . Do not dwell upon the personality of those who pass away and of those who are left; such things are weighed only in the scales of men. We should gauge in ourselves the enormous value of what is better and greater than humanity.' In truth, death is impotent because it too is illusory, and 'nothing is ever lost.' So this young Frenchman, who has yet never forgone the language of his Christianity, rediscovers amid the terrors of war the stoicism of Marcus Aurelius—that virtue which is 'neither patience nor too great confidence, but a certain faith in the order of all things, a certain power of saying of each trial, "It is well."' And, even beyond stoicism, it is the sublime and antique thought of India that he makes his own, the thought that denies appearances and differences, that reveals to man his separate self and the universe, and teaches him to say of the one, 'I am not this,' and of the other, 'that, I am.' Wonderful encounter of thoughts across the distance of ages and the distance of races! The meditation of this young French soldier, in face of the enemy who is to attack on the morrow, resumes the strange ecstasy in which was rapt the warrior of the Bhagavad Gita between two armies coming to the grapple. He, too, sees the turbulence of mankind as a dream that seems to veil the higher order and the Divine unity. He, too, puts his faith in that 'which knows neither birth nor death,' which is 'not born, is indestructible, is not slain when this body is slain.' This is the perpetual life that moves across all the shapes it calls up, striving in each one to rise nearer to light, to knowledge, and to peace. And that aim is a law and a command to every thinking being that he should give himself wholly for the general and final good. Thence comes the grave satisfaction of those who devote themselves, of those who die, in the cause of life, in the thought of a sacrifice not useless. 'Tell —— that if fate strikes down the best, there is no injustice; those who survive will be the better men. You do not know the things that are taught by him who falls. I do know.' And even more complete is the sacrifice when the relinquishment of life, when the renunciation of self, means the sacrifice of what was dearer than self, and would have been a life's joy to serve. There was the 'flag of art, the flag of science,' that the boy loved and had begun to carry—with what a thrill of pride and faith! Let him learn to fall without regrets. 'It is enough for him to know that the flag will yet be carried.'
A simple, a common obedience to the duty at hand is the practical conclusion of that high Indian wisdom when illusions are past. Not to retreat into the solitude, not to retire into the inaction, that he has known and prized; to fight at the side of his brothers, in his own rank, in his own place, with open eyes, without hope of glory or of gain, and because such is the law: this is the commandment of the god to the warrior Arjuna, who had doubted whether he were right in turning away from the Absolute to take part in the evil dream of war. 'The law for each is that he should fulfil the functions determined by his own state and being. Let every man accept action, since he shares in that nature the methods of which make action necessary.' Plainly, it is for Arjuna to bend his bow among the other Kshettryas. The young Frenchman had not doubted. But it will be seen by his letters how, in the horror of carnage, as in the tedious and patient duties of the mine and the trench, he too had kept his eyes upon eternal things.
I would not insist unduly upon this union of thought. He had hardly gained, through a few extracts from the Ramayana, a glimpse of the august thought of ancient Asia. Yet, with all the modern shades of ideas, with all the very French precision of form, the soul that is revealed in these letters, like that of Amiel, of Michelet, of Tolstoi, of Shelley, shows certain profound analogies with the tender and mystical genius of the Indies. Strange is that affinity, bearing witness as it does not only to his profound need of the Universal and the Absolute, but to his intuitive sympathy with the whole of life, to his impulses of love for the general soul of fruitfulness and for all its single and multitudinous forms. 'Love'—this is one of the words most often recurring in these letters. Love of the country of battle; love of the plain over which the mornings and the evenings come and go as the emotions come and go over a sensitive face; love of the trees with their almost human gesture—of one tree, steadfast and patient in its wounds, 'like a soldier'; love of the beautiful little living creatures of the fields which, in the silence of earliest morning, play on the edges of the trench; love of all things in heaven and earth—of that tender sky, of that French soil with its clear and severe outlines; love, above all, of those whom he sees in sufferings and in death at his side; love of the good peasants, the mothers who have given their sons, and who hold their peace, dry their tears, and fulfil the tasks of the vineyard and the field; love of those comrades whose misery 'never silenced laughter and song'—'good men who would have found my fine artistic robes a bad encumbrance in the way of their plain duty'; love of all those simple ones who make up France, and among whom it is good to lose oneself; love of all men living, for it is surely not possible to hate the enemy, human flesh and blood bound to this earth and suffering as we too suffer; love of the dead upon whom he looks, in the impassive beauty, silence, and mystery revealed beneath his meditative eyes.
It is by his close attention to the interior and spiritual significance of things that this painter is proved to be a poet, a religious poet who has sight, in this world, of the essence of being, in ineffable varieties: painter, and poet, and musician also, for in the trenches he lives with Beethoven, Handel, Schumann, Berlioz, carrying in his mind their imaginings and their rhythms, and conceiving also within himself 'the loveliest symphonies fully orchestrated.' Secret riches, intimate powers of consolation and of joy, able, in the gloomiest hours, in the dark and the mud of long nights on guard, to speak closely to the soul, or snatch it suddenly and swiftly to distances and heights. Schumann, Beethoven: between those two immortal spirits that made music for all human ears, and the harsh pedants, the angry protagonists of Germanism, who have succeeded in transforming a people into a war-machine, what likeness is there? Have we not made the genius of those two ours by understanding them as we understand them, and by so taking them into our hearts? Are they not friends of ours? Do they not walk with us in those blessed solitudes wherein our truest self awakens, and where our thoughts flow free?
It is the greatest of all whom a certain group of our soldiers invoke in those days before the expected battle in which some of them are to fall. They are in the depths of a dug-out. 'There, in complete darkness, night was awaited for the chance to get out. But once my fellow non-commissioned officers and I began humming the nine symphonies of Beethoven. I cannot tell what great thrill woke those notes within us.'
That almost sacred song, those heroic inspirations at such a moment—how do they not give the lie to German theories as to the limitations of French sensibility! And what poet of any other race than ours has ever looked upon Nature with more intimate eyes, with a heart more deeply moved, than his whose inner soul is here expressed?
* * * * *
These letters, despatched day by day from the trench or the billet, follow each other progressively as a poem does, or a song. A whole life unfolds, the life of a soul which we may watch through the monotony of its experiences, overcoming them all, or, again, rapt at the coming of supreme trials (as in February and in April) into perfect peace. It is well that we should trace the spiritual progress of such a dauntless will. No history of an interior life was ever more touching. That will is set to endurance, and terrible at times is the effort to endure; we divine this beneath the simple everyday words of the narrative. Here is an artist and a poet; he had chosen his life, he had planned it, by no means as a life of action. His whole culture, his whole self-discipline, had been directed to the further refining of a keen natural sensibility. Necessarily and intentionally he had turned towards solitude and contemplation. He had known himself to be purely a mirror for the world, tarnishable under the breath of the crowd. But now it was for him to lead a life opposed to his former law, contrary to his plan; and this not of necessity but by a completely voluntary act. That ego he had so jealously sheltered, in face of the world yet out of the world, he was now to yield up, to cast without hesitation or regret into the thick of human wars; he was no longer to spend his days apart from the jostling and the shouldering and the breath of troops; he was to bear his part in the mechanism that serves the terrible ends of war. And the close of a life which he would have pronounced, from his former point of view, to be slavery—the close might be speedy death. He had to bring himself to look upon his old life—the life that was lighted by his visions and his hopes, the life that fulfilled his sense of universal existence—as a mere dream, perhaps never to be dreamed again.
That is what he calls 'adapting himself.' And how the word recurs in his letters! It is a word that teaches him where duty lies, a duty of which the difficulty is to be gauged by the difference of the present from the past, of the bygone hope from the present effort. 'In the fulness of productiveness,' he confesses, 'at the hour when life is flowering, a young creature is snatched away, and cast upon a 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. And I manage it, except only in moments of 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.'
Indeed, strength was called for day by day. This 'adaptation' was no transformation. But by a continuous act of vital energy he assimilated all that he drew from his surroundings. Thus he fed his heart, and kept his own ideals. This was a way to renounce all things, and by renunciation to keep the one thing needful, to remain himself, to live, and not only to live but to flourish; to have a part in that universal life which produces flowers in nature, art and poetry in man. To gain so much, all that was needed was to treasure, unaltered by the terrors of war, a heart eager for all shapes of beauty. For this most religious poet, beauty was that divine spirit which shines more or less clearly in all things, and which raises him who perceives it higher than the accidents of individual existence. And he receives its full influence, and is rid of all anxiety, who is able to bid adieu to the present and the past, to regret nothing, to desire nothing, to receive from the passing moment that influence in its plenitude. 'I accept all from the hands of fate, and I have captured every delight that lurks under cover of every moment.' In this state of simplicity, which is almost a state of grace, he enters into communion with the living reality of the world. 'Let us eat and drink to all that is eternal, for to-morrow we die to all that is of earth.'
That emancipation of the soul is not achieved in a day. The earlier letters are beautiful, but what they teach is learnt by nearly all our soldiers. In these he tells of the spirit of the men, their fire of enthusiasm, their imperious sense of duty, their resolve to carry 'an undefiled conscience as far as their feet may lead.' Yet already he is seeking to maintain control of his own private self amid all the excitement of numbers. And he succeeds. He guards himself, he separates himself, 'as much as possible,' in the midst of his comrades, he keeps his intellectual life intact. Meanwhile he is within barrack walls, or else he is jotting down his letters at a railway station, or else he is in the stages of an interminable journey, 'forty men to a truck.' But to know him completely, wait until you see him within the zone of war, in billets, in the front line, on guard, when he has returned to contact with the very earth. As soon as he breathes open air, his instincts are awake again, the instinct 'to draw all the beauty out,' and—in the shadow where the future hides—'to draw out the utmost beauty as quickly as may be.' 'I picked flowers in the mud; keep them in remembrance of me,' he will write in a day of foreboding. A most significant trait is this—in the tedium of trench days, or when imminent peril silences the idle tongues, he gathers the greatest number of these magical flowers. In those moments when speech fails, his soul is serene, it has free play, and we hear its own fine sounds. Hitherto we had heard the repetition of the word of courage and of brotherhood uttered by all our gathering armies. But here, in battle, face to face with the eternities, that spirit of his sounds like the chord of an instrument heard for the first time in its originality and its infinite sensibility. Nor are these random notes; they soon make one harmonious sound and acquire a most touching significance, until by daily practice he learns how to abstract himself altogether from the most wretched surroundings. A quite impersonal ego seems then to detach itself from the particular ego that suffers and is in peril; it looks impartially upon all things, and sees its other self as a passing wave in the tide that a mysterious Intelligence controls. Strange faculty of double existence and of vision! He possesses it in the midst of the very battle in which his active valour gained him the congratulations of his commanding officer. In the furnace in which his flesh may be consumed he looks about him, and next morning he writes, 'Well, it was interesting.' And he adds, 'what I had kept about me of my own individuality was a certain visual perceptiveness that caused me to register the setting of things—a setting that dramatised itself as artistically as in any stage-management. During all these minutes I never relaxed in my resolve to see how it was.' He then, too, became aware of the meaning of violence. His tender and meditative nature had always held it in horror. And, perhaps for that very reason, he sought its explanation. It is by violence that an imperfect and provisional state of things is shattered, and what was lax is put into action again. Life is resumed, and a better order becomes possible. Here again we find his acceptance, his submission to the Reason that directs the universe; confidence in what takes place—that is his conclusion.
Such times for him are times of observation properly so called, of purer thought in which the impulses of the painter and the poet have no share. That kind of observation is not infrequent with him, when he is dealing with the world and with human action. It awakes at a war-spectacle, at a trait of manners, at the reading of a book, at a recollection of history or art; it is often to the Bible that he turns, and, amid the worst clamours, to the beautiful plastic images of Greece. Admirable is such serene energy of a spirit able to live purely as a spirit. It is admirable, but it is not unique; great intellectual activity is not uncommon with the French; others of our soldiers are philosophers among the shells. What does set these letters in a place apart is something more profound and more organic than thought, and that is sentiment; sentiment in its infinite and indefinite degrees, its relation to the aspects of nature—in a word, that poetic faculty which is akin to the musical, proceeding as they both do from the primitive ground-work of our being, and uniting in the inflexions of rhythm and of song. I have already named Shelley in connexion with the poet we are considering. And it is a Shelleyan union with the most intimate, the most inexpressible things in nature that is revealed in such a note as the following: '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.' In describing this atmosphere, this too sudden softness, he uses a word frequent in the vocabulary of Shelley—'fainting.' In truth, like the great English poet, whom he seems not to have known, he seeks from the beauty of things a faculty of self-forgetfulness in lyrical poetry, an inexpressible and blissful passing of the poet's being into the thing he contemplates. What he makes his own in the course of those weeks, what he remembers afterwards, and what he would recall, never to lose it again, is the culminating moment in which he has achieved self-forgetfulness and reached the ineffable. The simplest of natural objects is able to yield him such a moment; see, for instance, this abrupt intuition: 'I had lapsed from my former sense of the benediction of God, when suddenly the beauty—all the beauty—of a certain tree spoke to my inmost heart; and then I understood that an instant of such contemplation is the whole of life.' And still more continuous, still more vibrant, is at times his emotion, as when the bow draws out to the utmost a long ecstatic tone from a sensitive violin. 'What joy is this perpetual thrill in the heart of Nature! That same horizon of which I had watched the awakening, I saw last night bathe itself in rosy light; and then the full moon went up into a tender sky, fretted by coral and saffron trees.' It is very nearly ecstasy with him in that astonishing Christmas night which no one then at the front can ever forget—a solemn night, a blue night, full of stars and of music, when the order and the divine unity of the universe stood revealed to the eyes of men who, free for a moment from the dream of hatred and of blood, raised one chant along six miles, 'hymns, hymns, from end to end.'
Of the carnage in February there are a few precise notes, sufficient to suggest the increasing horror. The narrative grows quicker; the reader is aware of the pulse and the impetus of action, the imperious summons of duty; the young sergeant is in charge of men, and has to execute terrible tasks. But ever across the tumult and the slaughter, there are moments of recollection and of compassion; and, in the evening of a day of battle, what infinite tranquillity among the dead! At this period there are no more notes of landscape effects; the description is of the war, technical; otherwise the writer's thought is not of earth at all. Once only, towards the end, we find a sorrowful recollection of himself, a profound lamentation at the remembrance of bygone hopes, of bygone work, of the immensity of the sacrifice. 'This war is long, too long for those who had something else to do in the world! Why am I so sacrificed, when so many others, not my equals, are spared? Yet I had something worth doing to do in the world!' Most touching is that sigh, even more touching than the signs of greatness in his soul, for it suddenly breathes an anguish long controlled. It is a human weakness—our own weakness—that is at last confessed, on the eve of a Passion, as in the Divine example. At rare times such a question, in the constant sight of death, in fatigue and weariness, in the long distress of rain and mud, checks in him the impulse of life and of spiritual desire. He was himself the young plant of which he writes, growing, creating fragrance and breaking into flower, sure of God, feeling Him alive within itself. But all at once it knows frost is coming and the threat of unpitying things. What if the universe were void, what if in the infinity of the exterior world there were nothing, across the splendid vision, but an insensate fatality? What if sacrifice itself were also a delusion? '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.' And he asks himself the anxious question, 'Is it even sure that moral effort bears any fruit?' It is something like abandonment by God. But that darkening of his lights passes quickly away. He comes again to the regions of tranquil thought, and leaves them thenceforward only for the work in hand. 'I hope,' he writes, 'that when you think of me you will have in mind all those who have left everything behind, and how their nearest and dearest think of them only in the past, and say of them, "We had once a brother, who, many years ago, withdrew from this world."' How strange is the serenity of these lofty thoughts, how entirely detached from self and from all human things is this spirit of contemplation. Two slight traits give us signs: One night, on a battlefield 'scattered with fragments of men' and with burning dwellings, under a starry sky, he makes his bed in an excavation, and lies there watching the crescent moon, and waits for dawn; now and again a shell bursts, earth falls about him, and then silence returns to the frozen soil: 'I have paid the price, but I have had moments of solitude full of God.' Again, one evening, after five days of horror ('we have no officers left—they all died as brave men'), he suddenly comes upon the body of a friend; 'a white body, splendid under the moon. I lay down near him.' In the quietness, by the side of the dead man, nothing remains but beauty and peace.
* * * * *
These letters are to be anonymous, at least so long as any hope remains that he who was lost may return. It is enough to know that they were written by a Frenchman who, in love and faith, bore his part in the general effort, the common peril, glad to renounce himself in the pain and the devotion of his countrymen. By a happy fortune that he did not foresee when he left his clean solitude for the sweat, the servitude, and the throng, he no doubt produced the best of himself in these letters; and it may be doubted whether, in the course of a successful artist's life, it would have been given to him to express himself with so much completeness. This is a thought that may strengthen those who love him to accept whatever has come to pass. His soul is here, a more essential soul perhaps, and a more beautiful, than they had known. It was in war that Marcus Aurelius also wrote his thoughts. Possibly the worst is needful for the manifestation of the whole of human greatness. We marvel how the soul can so discover in itself the means to oppose suffering and death. Thus have many of our sons revealed themselves in the day of trial, to the wonder of France, until then unaware of all that she really was. That is how these pages touch us so closely. He who wrote them had attuned himself with his countrymen. Through the more mystical acts of his mind we perceive the sublime message sent to us from the front, more or less explicitly, by others of our brothers and our sons—the high music that goes up still from the whole of France at war. In all his comrades assembled for the great task, he too had recognised the best and the deepest things that his own heart held, and so he speaks of them constantly—especially of the simplest of the men—with so great respect and love. Far from ordinary ambitions and cares, the things that this rough life among the eternities brings into all hearts with a heretofore unknown amplitude are serenity of conscience and a freshness of feeling in perpetual touch with the harmonies of nature. These men do but reflect nature. Since they have renounced themselves and given themselves, all things have become simple for them. They have the transparence of soul and the lights of childhood. 'We spend childish days. We are children.' . . .
This new youthfulness of heart under the contemned menace of death, this innocence in the daily fulfilment of heroic duty, is assured by a spiritual state akin to sanctity.
LETTERS OF A SOLDIER
August 6, 1914.
MY VERY DEAR MOTHER,—These are my first days of life at war, full of change, but the fatigue I actually feel is very different from what I foresaw.
I am in a state of great nervous tension because of the want of sleep and exercise. I lead the life of a government clerk. I belong to what is called the depot, I am one of those doing sedentary work, and destined eventually to fill up the gaps in the fighting line.
What we miss is news; there are no longer any papers to be had in this town.
We are without news, and so it will be for several days, the censorship being of the most rigorous kind.
Here life is calm. The weather is magnificent, and all breathes quiet and confidence. We think of those who are fighting in the heat, and this thought makes our own situation seem even too good. The spirit among the reservists is excellent.
Sunday, August 16.
To-day a walk along the Marne. Charming weather after a little rain.
A welcome interlude in these troubled times. We are still without news, like you, but we have happily a large stock of patience. I have had some pleasure in the landscape, notwithstanding the invasion of red and blue. These fine men in red and blue have given the best impression of their moral. Great levies will be made upon our depots, to be endured with fortitude.
August 16 (from a note-book).
The monotony of military life benumbs me, but I don't complain. After nine years these types are to be rediscovered, a little less marked, improved, levelled down. Just now every one is full of grave thoughts because of the news from the East.
The ordinary good-fellowship of the mess has been replaced by a finer solidarity and a praiseworthy attempt at adaptation. One of the advantages of our situation is that we can, as it were, play at being soldiers with the certainty of not wasting our time. All these childish and easy occupations, which are of immediate result and usefulness, bring back calm to the mind and soothe the nerves. Then the great stay which supports the men is a profound, vague feeling of brotherhood which turns all hearts towards those who are fighting. Each one feels that the slight discomfort which he endures is only a feeble tribute to the frightful expense of all energy and all devotedness at the front.
This letter will barely precede our own departure. The terrible conflict calls for our presence close to those who are already in the midst of the struggle. I leave you, grandmother and you, with the hope of seeing you again, and the certainty that you will approve of my doing all that seems to me my duty.
Nothing is hopeless, and, above all, nothing has changed our idea of the part we have to play.
Tell all those who love me a little that I think of them. I have no time to write to any one. My health is of the best.
. . . After such an upheaval we may say that our former life is dead. Dear mother, let us, you and I, with all our courage adapt ourselves to an existence entirely different, however long it may last.
Be very sure that I won't go out of my way to do anything that endangers our happiness, but that I'll try to satisfy my conscience, and yours. Up till now I am without cause for self-reproach, and so I hope to remain.
August 25 (2nd letter).
A second letter to tell you that, instead of our regiment, it was Pierre's that went. I had the joy of seeing him pass in front of me when I was on guard in the town. I accompanied him for a hundred yards, then we said good-bye. I had a feeling that we should meet again.
It is the gravest of hours; the country will not die, but her deliverance will be snatched only at the price of frightful efforts.
Pierre's regiment went covered with flowers, and singing. It was a deep consolation to be together till the end.
It is fine of Andre to have saved his drowning comrade. We don't realise the reserve of heroism there is in France, and among the young intellectual Parisians.
In regard to our losses, I may tell you that whole divisions have been wiped out. Certain regiments have not an officer left.
As for my state of mind, my first letter will perhaps tell you better what I believe to be my duty. Know that it would be shameful to think for one instant of holding back when the race demands the sacrifice. My only part is to carry an undefiled conscience as far as my feet may lead.
[Footnote 1: Second Lieutenant Andre Cadoux, who died gloriously in battle on April 13, 1915.]
MY VERY DEAR MOTHER,—I was made happy by Maurice Barres's fine article, 'l'Aigle et le Rossignol,' which corresponds in every detail with what I feel.
The depots contain some failures, but also men of fine energy, among whom I dare not yet count myself, but with whom I hope to set out. The major had dispensed me from carrying a knapsack, but I carry it for practice and manage quite well.
The only assurance which I can give you concerns my own moral and physical state, which is excellent. The true death would be to live in a conquered country, above all for me, whose art would perish.
I isolate myself as much as I can, and I am really unaffected, from the intellectual point of view. Besides, the atmosphere of the mess is well above that of normal times: the trouble is that the constant moving and changing drags us about from place to place, and growing confidence falters before the perpetually recurring unknown.
. . . My little mother, it is certain that though we did not leave yesterday, it is yet only a question of hours. I won't say to you anything that I have already said, content only that I have from you the approval of which I was certain.
. . . In the very hard march yesterday only one man fell out, really ill. France will come out of this bad pass.
I can only repeat to you how well I am prepared for all eventualities, and that nothing can undo our twenty-seven years of happiness. I am resolved not to consider myself foredoomed, and I fancy the joy of returning, but I am ready to go to the end of my strength. If you knew the shame I should endure to think that I might have done something more!
In the midst of all this sadness we live through magnificent hours, when the things that used to be most strange take on an august significance.
September 4, 6 o'clock (on the way, in the train).
We have had forty hours of a journey in which the picturesque outdoes even the extreme discomfort. The great problem is sleep, and the solution is not easy when there are forty in a cattle-truck.
The train stops every instant, and we encounter the unhappy refugees. Then the wounded: fine spectacle of patriotism. The English army. The artillery.
We no longer know anything, having no more papers, and we can't trust the rumours which fly among the distraught population.
Saturday, September 5 (at the end of 60 hours in a cattle-truck: 40 men to a truck).
On the same day we skirted the Seine opposite the forest of Fontainebleau and the banks of the Loire. Saw the chateau de Blois and the chateau d'Amboise. Unhappily the darkness prevented us from seeing more. How can I tell you what tender emotions I felt by these magnificent banks of the Loire!
Are you bombarded by the frightful aeroplanes? I think of you in such conditions and above all of poor Grandmother, who indeed had little need to see all this! However, we must hope.
We learn from wounded refugees that in the first days of August mistakes were made in the high command which had terrible consequences. It falls to us now to repair those mistakes.
Masses of English troops arrive. We have crossed numbers of crowded trains.
Well, this war will not have been the mere march-past which many thought, but which I never thought, it would be; but it will have stirred the good in all humanity. I do not speak of the magnificent things which have no immediate connection with the war,—but nothing will be lost.
September 5, 1914 (1st halting-place, 66 hours in the cage without being able to stretch).
Still the same jolting and vibration, but three times after the horrible night there has come the glory of the morning, and all fatigue has disappeared.
We have crossed the French country in several directions, from the rather harsh serenity, full of suggestiveness, of Champagne, to the rich robust placidity of Brittany. On the way we followed the full and noble banks of the Loire, and now . . .
O my beautiful country, the heart of the world, where lies all that is divine upon earth, what monster sets upon you—a country whose offence is her beauty!
I used to love France with sincere love, which was more than a little dilettante; I loved her as an artist, proud to live in the most beautiful of lands; in fact, I loved her rather as a picture might love its frame. It needed this horror to make me know how filial and profound are the ties which bind me to my country. . . .
September 7 (from a note-book).
. . . We are embarked on the adventure, without any dominant feeling except perhaps a sufficiently calm acceptance of this fatality. But sensibility is kept awake by the sight of the victims, particularly the refugees. Poor people, truly uprooted, or rather, dead leaves in the storm, little souls in great circumstances.
Whole trains of cattle-trucks, which can hardly be said to have changed their use! Trains in which is heaped up the desolation of these people torn from their homes, and how quickly become as beasts! Misery has stripped them of all their human attributes. We take them food and drink, and that is how they become exposed: the man drinks without remembering his wife and children. The woman thinks of her child. But other women take their time, unable to share in the general haste. Among these waifs there is one who assails my heart,—a grandmother of eighty-seven, shaken, tossed about by all these blows, being by turns hoisted into and let down from the rolling cages. So trembling and disabled, so lost. . . .
September 10 (from a note-book).
We arrive in a new part of the country on the track of good news: the strong impression is that France's future is henceforth assured. Everything corroborates this feeling, from the official report which formally announces a complete success down to the most fantastic rumours.
September 13 (from a note-book).
This is war; here are we approaching the place of horror. We have left behind the French villages where peace was still sleeping. Now there is nothing but tumult. And here are direct victims of the war.
The soldiers: blood, mud and dirt. The wounded. Those whom we pass at first are the least suffering—wounds in arms, in hands. In most of them can clearly be seen, in the midst of their fatigue and distress, great relief at having been let off comparatively easily.
Farther on, towards the ambulances, the burying of the dead: there are six, stretched on two waggons. Smoothed out, and covered with rags, they are taken to an open pit at the foot of a Calvary. Some priests conduct, rather than celebrate, the service, military as they have become. A little straw and some holy water over all, and so we pass on. After all, these dead are happy: they are cared-for dead. What can be said of those who lie farther on and who have passed away after nights of the throes of death and abandonment.
. . . From this agony there will remain to us an immense yearning for pity and brotherhood and goodness.
Wednesday, September 16, 1914.
In the horror-zone.
The rainy twilight shadows the road, and suddenly, in a ditch—the dead! They have dragged themselves here from the battlefield—they are all corrupt now. The coming of darkness makes it difficult to distinguish their nationality, but the same great pity envelops them all. Only one word for them: poor boy! The night for these ignominies—and then again the morning. The day rises upon the swollen bodies of dead horses. In the corner of a wood, carnage, long cold.
One sees only open sacks, ripped nose-bags. Nothing that looks like life remains.
Among them some civilians, whose presence is due to the German proceeding of making French hostages march under our fire.
If these notes should reach any one, may they give rise in an honest heart to horror of the foul crime of those responsible for this war. There will never be enough glory to cover all the blood and all the mud.
September 21, 1914.
War in rain.
It is suffering beyond what can be imagined. Three days and three nights without being able to do anything but tremble and moan, and yet, in spite of all, perfect service must be rendered.
To sleep in a ditch full of water has no equivalent in Dante, but what can be said of the awakening, when one must watch for the moment to kill or to be killed!
Above, the roar of the shells drowns the whistling of the wind. Every instant, firing. Then one crouches in the mud, and despair takes possession of one's soul.
When this torment came to an end I had such a nervous collapse that I wept without knowing why—late, useless tears.
Hell in so calm and pastoral a place. The autumnal country pitted and torn by cannon!
If, apart from the greater lessons of the war, there are small immediate benefits to be had, the one that means most to me is the contemplation of the night sky. Never has the majesty of the night brought me so much consolation as during this accumulation of trials. Venus, sparkling, is a friend to me. . . .
I am now familiar with the constellations. Some of them make great curves in the sky as if to encircle the throne of God. What glory! And how one evokes the Chaldean shepherds!
O constellations! first alphabet!. . .
I can say that, as far as the mind goes, I have lived through great days when all vain preoccupations were swept away by a new spirit.
If there should ever be any lapse so that only one of my letters reaches you, may it be one that says how beneficial, how precious have these torments been!
October 1 (from a note-book).
It follows from this that our suffering, every moment of it, should be considered as the most marvellous source of feeling and of progress for the conscience.
I now know into what domain my destiny leads me. No longer towards the proud and illusory region of pure speculation, but in the way of all little daily things—it is there that I must carry the service of an ever-vigilant sensibility.
I see how easily an upright nature may dispense with the arts of expression in order to be helpful in act and in influence. Precious lesson, which will enable me, should I return, to suffer less if fate no longer allows me to paint.
It seems that we have the order to attack. I do not want to risk this great event without directing my thoughts to you in the few moments of quiet that are left. . . . Everything here combines to maintain peace in the heart: the beauty of the woods in which we live, the absence of intellectual complications. . . . It is paradoxical, as you say, but the finest moments of my moral life are those that have just gone by. . . .
* * * * *
Know that there will always be beauty on earth, and that man will never have enough wickedness to suppress it. I have gathered enough of it to store my life. May our destiny allow me time later to bring to fruit all that I have gathered now. It is something that no one can snatch from us, it is treasure of the soul which we have amassed.
Up till now your love and Providence do not forsake me. . . . We are still in the magnificent devastated woods, in the midst of the finest autumn. Nature brings many joys which dominate these horrors. Profound and powerful hope, whatever suffering still awaits us.
It is true, dear mother, that some renunciation costs a great deal of effort, but be sure that we both possess the necessary strength of soul to live through these difficult hours without catching our breath in painful longing at the idea of the return we both crave for.
The great thing is to know the value of the present moment and to make it yield all that it has of good and beauty and edification. For the rest, no one can guarantee the future, and it would be vain and futile torment to live wondering what might happen to us. Don't you think that life has dispensed us many blessings, and that one of the last, and the greatest, is that we have been able to communicate with each other and to feel our union? There are many unfortunate people here who do not know where their wives and children are, who have been for three months isolated from all. You see that we are still among the lucky ones.
Dear mother, less than ever ought we to despair, for never shall we be more truly convinced that all this agitation and delirium of mankind's are nothing in view of the share of eternity which each one carries within himself, and that all these monstrosities will end in a better future. This war is a kind of cataclysm which succeeds to the old physical upheavals of our globe; but have you not noticed that, in the midst of all this, a little of our soul is gone from us, and that we have lost something of our conviction of a Higher Order? Our sufferings come from our small human patience taking the same direction as our desires, noble though they may be. But as soon as we set ourselves to question things in order to discover their true harmony, we find rest unto our souls. How do we know that this violence and disorder are not leading the universal destinies towards a final good?
Dear mother, still cherishing the firmest and most human hope, I send my deepest love to you and to my beloved grandmother.
Send also all my love to our friends who are in trouble. Help them to bear everything: two crosses are less heavy to carry than one. And confidence in our eternal joy.
October 15, 7 o'clock.
I have received your card of the 1st. What joy it gives me that we should be at last in touch with each other. Certainly, our thoughts have never been apart. You tell me of Marthe's misfortune, and I am happy that you can be useful to her. Dear mother, that is the task that belongs to us both: to be useful at the present moment without reference to the moment that is to follow.
Yes, indeed, I feel deeply with you that I have a mission in life. But one must act in each instant as though that mission was having immediate fulfilment. Do not let us keep back one single small corner of our hearts for our small hopes. We must attain to this—that no catastrophe whatsoever shall have power to cripple our lives, to interrupt them, to set them out of tune. That is the finest work, and it is the work of this moment. The rest, that future which we must not question—you will see, mother dear, what it holds of beauty and goodness and truth. Not one of our faculties must be used in vain, and all useless anxiety is a harmful expense.
Be happy in this great assurance that I give you—that up till now I have raised my soul to a height where events have had no empire over it, and I promise you that my effort will be still to make ready my soul as much as I can.
Tell M—— that if fate strikes down the best, there is no injustice: those who survive will be the better men. Let her accept the sacrifice, knowing that it is not in vain. You do not know the things that are taught by him who falls. I do know.
To him who can read life, present events have broken all habit of thought, but they allow him more glimpses than ever before of eternal beauty and order.
Let us recover from the surprise of this laceration, and adapt ourselves without loss of time to the new state of things which turns us into people as privileged as Socrates and the Christian martyrs and the men of the Revolution. We are learning to despise all in life that is merely temporary, and to delight in that which life so seldom yields: the love of those things that are eternal.
We are living for some days in comparative calm; between two storms my company is deserving of special rest. Also I am thoroughly enjoying this month of October. Your fine letter of October 2 reaches me, and I am now full of happiness, and there is profound peace.
Let us continue to arm ourselves with courage, do not let us even speak of patience. Nothing but to accept the present moment with all the treasures which it brings us. That is all there is to do, and it is precisely in this that all the beauty of the world is concentrated. There is something, dear mother, something outside all that we have habitually felt. Apply your courage and your love of me to uncovering this, and laying it bare for others.
This new beauty has no reference to the ideas expressed in the words health, family, country. One perceives it when one distinguishes the share of the eternal which is in everything. But let us cherish this splendid presentiment of ours—that we shall meet again: it will not in any way impede our task. Tell M—— how much I think of her. Alas! her case is not unique. This war has broken many a hope; so, dear mother, let us put our hope there where the war cannot attain to it, in the deep places of our heart, and in the high places of our soul.
October 17, 3 o'clock.
To write to you and to know that my letters reach you is a daily paradise to me. I watch for the hour when it is possible to write.
Yes, beloved mother, you must feel a revival of courage and desire to live; never must a single affection, however good, be counted as a pretext for life. No accident should make us forget the reason we are alive. Of course, we can prefer this or that mission in life, but let us accept the one which presents itself, however surprising or passing it may be. You feel as I do, that happiness is in store for us, but let us not think of it. Let us think of the actions of to-day, of all the sacrifices they imply.
I accept all from the hands of fate, and I have captured every delight that lurks under cover of every moment.
Ah! if men only knew how much peace they squander, and how much may be contained in one minute, how far less would they suffer from this seeming violence. No doubt there are extreme torments that I do not yet know, and which perhaps test the soul in a way I do not suspect, but I exert all the strength of my soul to accept each moment and each test. What is necessary is to recognise love and beauty triumphant over violence. No few seasons of hate and grief will have the power to overthrow eternal beauty, and of this beauty we all have an imperishable store.
MY VERY DEAR MOTHER,—I have re-read Barres's article, 'l'Aigle et le Rossignol.' It is still as beautiful, but it no longer seems in complete harmony. Now nothing exists outside the absolute present; everything else is like ornaments put to one side until the holiday, the far-off, uncertain holiday. But what does it matter!—the ornaments are treasured up in safety. Thus do I cherish the treasures of affection, of legitimate ambition, of praiseworthy aspiration. All of these I have covered over, and I live but in the present moment.
This morning, under the fine sky, I remembered the music of yesterday: I was full of happiness. Forgive me for not living in an anguish of longing to return. I believe that you approve of my giving back our dearest hopes into other hands than ours.
If, as I hope intensely, I have the joy of seeing you again, you will know the miraculous way in which I have been led by Providence. I have only had to bow before a power and a beneficence which surpassed all my proud conceptions.
I can say that God has been within me as I am within God, and I make firm resolves always to feel such a communion.
You see, the thing is to put life to good account, not as we understand it, even in our noblest affections, but in saying to ourselves: Let us eat and drink to all that is eternal, for to-morrow we die to all that is of earth. We acquire an increase of love in that moment when we renounce our mean and anxious hopes.
This is nearly the end of the third month of a terrible trial, from which the lessons will be wide and salutary not only to him who will know how to listen, but to all the world, and therein lies the great consolation for those who are involved in this torment. Let it also be the consolation of those whose hopes are with the combatants.
This consolation consists especially in the supernaturally certain conviction that all divine and immortal energy, working through mankind, far from being enfeebled, will, on the contrary, be exalted and more intensely effectual at the end of these storms.
Happy the man who will hear the song of peace as in the 'Pastoral Symphony,' but happy already he who has foreknowledge of it amid the tumult! And what does it matter in the end that this magnificent prophecy is fulfilled in the absence of the prophet! He who has guessed this has gleaned great joy upon earth. We can leave it to a higher being to pronounce if the mission is accomplished.
October 28 (2nd letter, almost at the same hour).
MY DEAR, DEAR MOTHER,—Another welcome moment to spend with you. We can never say any but the same thing, but it is so fine a thing that it can always be said in new ways.
To-day we are living under a sky of great clouds as swift and cold as those of the Dutch landscape painters.
* * * * *
Dear, I dare not wish for anything—it must not be. I must not even consider a partial relaxation. I assure you that the effort for endurance is less painful than certain times of intensive preparation that we have passed through. Only we can each moment brace ourselves in a kind of resistance against what is evil in us, and leave every door open to the good which comes from without.
. . . I am glad that you have read Tolstoi: he also took part in war. He judged it; he accepted its teaching. If you can glance at the admirable War and Peace, you will find pictures that our situation recalls. It will make you understand the liberty for meditation that is possible to a soldier who desires it.
As to the disability which the soul might be supposed to suffer through the lack of all material well-being, do not believe in it. We lead the life of rabbits on the first day of the season's shooting, and, notwithstanding that, we can enrich our souls in a magnificent way.
I write to you in a marvellous landscape of grey autumn lashed by the wind. But for me the wind has always been without sadness, because it brings to me the spirit of the country beyond the hill. . . .
The horrible war does not succeed in tearing us from our intellectual habitation. In spite of moments of overwhelming noise, one more or less recovers oneself. The ordinary course of our present existence gives us a sensibility like that of a raw wound, aware of the least breath. Perhaps after this spoliation of our moral skin a new surface will be formed, and those who return will be for the time brutally insensitive. Never mind: this condition of crisis for the soul cannot remain without profit.
Yesterday we were in a pretty Meuse village, all the more charming in contrast with the surrounding ruins.
I was able to have a shirt washed, and while it dried I talked to the excellent woman who braves death every day to maintain her hearth. She has three sons, all three soldiers, and the news she has of them is already old. One of them passed within a few kilometres of her: his mother knew it and was not able to see him. Another of these Frenchwomen keeps the house of her son-in-law who has six children. . . .
For you, duty lies in acceptance of all and, at the same time, in the most perfect confidence in eternal justice.
Do not dwell upon the personality of those who pass away and of those who are left; such things are weighed only with the scales of men. We must gauge in ourselves the enormous value of what is better and greater than humanity.
Dear mother, absolute confidence. In what? We both already know.
October 30, 10 o'clock.
Up till now I have possessed the wisdom that renounces all, but now I hope for a wisdom that accepts all, turning towards what may be to come. What matter if the trap opens beneath the steps of the runner. True, he does not attain his end, but is he wiser who remains motionless under the pretext that he might fall?
November 1, All Saints', 8 o'clock.
Last night I received your card of 24-25th. While you were looking at that moon, clouded from us, you were very wrong to feel yourself so helpless; how much reason had you to hope! At that very moment I was being protected by Providence in a way that rebukes all pride.
The next day we had the most lovely dawn over the deeply coloured autumn woods in this country where I made my sketches of three years ago; but just here the landscape becomes accentuated and enlarged and acquires a pathetic majesty. How can I tell you the grandeur of the horizon! We are remaining in this magnificent place, and this is All Saints' Day!
At the moment, I write to you in the silvery light of a sun rising over the valley mists; we are conscious of the sleeping country for forty kilometres around, and battle hardly disturbs the religious gravity of the scene.
Do love my proposed picture! It makes a bond with my true career. If it is vouchsafed to me to return, the form of the picture may change, but its essence is contained in the sketch.
Mid-day.—Splendid All Saints' Day profaned by violence.
Glory of the day. . . .
November 2, All Souls'.
Splendid feast of sun and of joy in the glorious beauty of a Meusian landscape. Hope confines itself in the heart, not daring to insult the grief of those for whom this day is perhaps the first day of bereavement.
Dear beloved mother, twenty-eight years ago you were in a state of mourning and hope to-day, the agony is as full of hope as then. It is at a different age that these new trials occur, but a whole life of submission prepares the way to supreme wisdom.
What joy is this perpetual thrill in the heart of Nature! That same horizon of which I had watched the awakening, I saw last night bathe itself in rosy light; then the full moon went up into a tender sky, fretted by coral and saffron trees.
Dear, the frightful record of martyrdom of the best French youth cannot go on indefinitely. It is impossible that the flower of a whole race can disappear.
There must be some nobler task than war for the nation's genius! I have a secret conviction of a better near future. May our courage and our union lead us to this better thing. Hope, hope always! I received grandmother's dear letter and M.R.'s kind and affectionate card.
Dear, have you this beautiful sun to-day? How noble is the country and how good is Nature! To him who listens she says that nothing will ever be lost.
November 4, 10 o'clock.
I live only through your thoughts and in the blessings of Nature. This morning our chiefs menaced us with a march of twenty kilometres, and this threat fulfilled itself in the form of a charming walk in the landscape that I love so much.
Exquisite vapours, which we see lifting hour by hour at the call of a temperate sun; and, yonder, those high plateaux which command a vast panorama, where everything is finely drawn, or rather is just felt in the mist. . . .
There are hills furnished with bare trees holding up their charming profiles. I think of the primitives, of their sensitive and conscientious landscapes. What scrupulous majesty, of which the first sight awes with its grandeur, and the detail is profoundly moving!
You see, dear mother, how God dispenses blessings that are far greater than griefs. It is not even a question of patience, since time has no longer any meaning for us, for it is not a matter of any calculable duration. But then, what richness of emotion in each present minute!
This then is our life, of which I wrote to you that not one event must make of it something unachieved, interrupted; and I hope to preserve this wisdom. But at the same time I want to ally it with another wisdom which looks to the future, even if the future is forbidden to us. Yes, let us take all from the hands of the present (and the present brings us so many treasures!), but let us also prepare for the future.
November 5, 8 o'clock.
DEAR MOTHER,—Do not hide from me anything of what happens in Paris, of your cares, or your occupations. All that you will decide is for the best. My own happiness, in the midst of all this, lies just in that security I have in thinking of your spirit.
The weather is still exquisite and very soft. To-day, without leaving the beautiful region to which we came on September 20th, we have returned to the woods. I like that less than the wide open view, but there is prettiness here too. And then the sky, now that the leaves have fallen, is so beautiful and so tender.
I have written to C——. I will write to Mme. C——. I hope for a letter from you. If you knew how much the longer is a day without news! It is true I have your old letters, but the new letter has a fragrance which I now can't do without.
Yesterday, without knowing why, I was a little sad: what soldiers call avoir le cafard. My sadness arose from my having parted the day before with a book of notes which I had decided to send to you in a package. The events of the day before yesterday, albeit pacific, had so hustled me that I was not able to attend to this unfortunate parcel as I should have liked. Also, I was divided between two anxieties: the first, lest the package should not reach you, and lest these notes, which have been my life from the 1st to the 20th of October, should be lost. The second, on the contrary, was lest it should reach you before the arrival of explaining letters, which might seem strange to you, the sending-off having probably been done in another name, and the cover of my copybook bearing my directions that the notes should be forwarded to you if necessary.
* * * * *
. . . To-day we are living in the most intimate and delicate Corot landscape.
From the barn where we have established our outpost, I see, first, the road with puddles left by the rain; then some tree-stumps; then, beyond a meadow, a line of willows beside a charming running stream. In the background, a few houses are veiled in a light mist, keeping the delicate darks which our dear landscape-painter felt so nobly.
Such is the peace of this morning. Who would believe that one has but to turn one's head, and there is nothing but conflagration and ruin!. . .
November 7, 8 A.M.
I have just had your card of the 30th announcing the sending-off of a packet. How kind this is! how much thought is given to us! All this sweetness is appreciated to the full.
Yesterday, a delicious November day. This morning, too much fog for the enjoyment of nature. But yesterday afternoon!
Delicate, refined weather, in which everything is etched as it were on a misty mirror. The bare shrubs, near our post, have been visited by a flock of green birds, with white-bordered wings; the cocks have black heads with a white spot. How can I tell you what it was to hear the solitary sound of their flight in this stillness!—That is one good thing about war: there can be only a certain amount of evil in the world; now, all of this being used by man against man, beasts at any rate are so much the better off—at least the beasts of the wood, our customary victims.
If you could only see the confidence of the little forest animals, such as the field-mice! The other day, from our leafy shelter I watched the movements of these little beasts. They were as pretty as a Japanese print, with the inside of their ears rosy like a shell. And then another time we watched the migration of the cranes: it is a moving thing to hear them cry in the dusk.
* * * * *
. . . What a happiness to see that you are drawing. Yes, do this for us both. If you knew how I itch to express in paint all our emotions! If you have read my letters of all this time you will know my privation, but also my happiness.
Monday, November 9, 7 o'clock.
. . . We have returned to the wide open view that I love so much. Unfortunately we can only catch a glimpse of it through mouse-holes. Well, it is always so!. . .
. . . All these days I have been feeling the charm of a country lying in autumn sweetness. This peace was troubled yesterday by the poignant sight of a burning village. It is not the first we have seen, and yet we have not grown used to it.
We had taken up our observation-posts; it was still dark. From our height we saw the tremendous flare and, at daybreak, the charming village, sheltering in the valley, was nothing but smoke. This, in the silvery nimbus of a glorious morning.
From our mouse-trap we had looked to the distance with its prettily winding road, its willow-bordered stream, its Calvary: all this harmony to end in the horror of destruction.
The Germans had set fire to it by hand in the night; they had been dislodged from it after two nights of fierce fighting: their action may be interpreted as an intention to retreat at this point. This proceeding, generally detested by our soldiers, is, I think, forced by strategic necessity. When a village is destroyed it is very difficult for us in the rear to make any kind of use of it. All day we have been witnessing this devastation, while above our heads the little field-mice are taking advantage of the straw in which we are to sleep.
Our existence, as infantry, is a little like that of rabbits in the shooting season. The more knowing of us, at any rate, are perpetually on the look-out for a hole. As soon as we are buried in it, we are ordered not to move again. These wise orders are unfortunately not always given with discrimination; thus, yesterday there were four of us in an advance-trench situated in a magnificent spot and perfectly hidden beneath leaves. We should have been able to delight in the landscape but for the good corporal, who was afraid to allow us even a little enjoyment of life. Later the artillery came up with a tremendous din and showed us the use of these superlative precautions.
None the less, I have been able to enjoy the landscape—alas! a scene of smoke and tragedy yesterday. Be sure, beloved mother, that I do not wish to commit a single imprudence, but certainly this war is the triumph of Fate, of Providence and Destiny.
I pray ardently to deserve the grace of return, but apart from a few moments of only human impatience, I can say that the greater part of my being is given up to resignation.
November 10, 11 o'clock.
MY VERY DEAR MOTHER,—What shall I say to you to-day—a day monotonous with fog. Occupations that are stupefying, not in themselves, but because of the insipid companionship. I fall back on myself. Yesterday I wrote you a long letter, telling you among other things how dear your letters are to me. When I began to write on this sheet I was a little weary and troubled, but now that I am with you I become happy, and I immediately remember whatever good fortune this day has brought me.
This morning the lieutenant sent me to get some wire from headquarters, in a devastated village which we have surrounded for six weeks. I went down through the orchards full of the last fallen plums. A few careless soldiers were gathering them up into baskets. A charming scene, purely pastoral and bucolic, in spite of the red trousers—very faded after three months' campaign. . . .
I am happy in the affection of Ch—— R——. His is a nature according in all its elements with my own. I am sure that he will not be cross with me for not writing, especially if you give a kind message from me to his wife.
The little task confided to me meant walking from nightfall until nine o'clock, but I occasionally lay down in a shelter or in a barn instead of getting back to the trenches for the night.
I do not have good nights of reading now, but sometimes when S—— and I are lying side by side in the trench, you would not believe what a mirage we evoke and what joy we have in stirred-up memories. Ah, how science and intellectual phenomena lead us into a very heaven of legends, and what pleasure I get from the marvellous history of this metal, or that acid! For me the thousand and one nights are renewing themselves. And then at waking, sometimes, the blessing of a dawn. That is the life I have led since the 13th or 14th of October. I ask for nothing, I am content that in such a war we should have relatively a great deal of calm.
You cannot imagine what a consolation it is to know that you give your heart to what concerns me. What pleasure I have in imagining you interested in my books, looking at my engravings!. . .
November 12, 3 o'clock.
. . . To-day we have had a march as pleasant as the first one, in weather of great beauty. We saw, in the blue and rosy distance, the far-off peak of the Metz hills, and the immense panorama scattered over with villages, some of which gathered up the morning light, while others were merely suggested.
This is the broad outline of our existence: for three days we stay close to the enemy, living in well-constructed shelters which are improved each time; then we spend three days a little way back; and then three days in billets in a neighbouring village, generally the same. We even gradually form habits—very passing ones, but still, we have a certain amount of contact with the civil population which has been so sorely tried. The woollen things are very effectual and precious.
. . . We have good people to deal with. The dear woman from whose dwelling I write to you, and with whom I stayed before, wears herself to death to give us a little of what reminds us of home.
But, dear mother, what reminds me of home is here in my heart. It is not eating on plates or sitting on a chair that counts. It is your love, which I feel so near. . . .
Since half-past eight on the evening of the 12th we have been dragged about from place to place in the prospect of our taking part in a violent movement. We left at night, and in the calm of nature my thoughts cleared themselves a little, after the two days in billets during which one becomes a little too material. Our reinforcement went up by stealth. We awaited our orders in a barn, where we slept on the floor. Then we filed into the woods and fields, which the day, breaking through grey, red, and purple clouds, slowly lit up, in surroundings the most romantic and pathetic that could be imagined. In the full daylight of a charming morning we learnt that the troops ahead of us had inflicted enormous losses on the enemy, and had even made a very slight advance. We then returned to our usual posts, and here I am again, beholding once more the splendour of the French country, so touching in this grey, windy, and impassioned November, with sunshine thrown in patches upon infinite horizons.
Dear mother, how beautiful it is, this region of spacious dignity, where all is noble and proportioned, where outlines are so beautifully defined!—the road bordered with trees diminishing towards the frontier, hills, and beyond them misty heights which one guesses to be the German Vosges. There is the scenery, and here is something better than the scenery. There is a Beethoven melody and a piece by Liszt called 'Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude.' Certainly we have no solitude, but if you turn the pages of Albert Samain's poems you will find an aphorism by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam: 'Know that there will always be solitude on earth for those who are worthy of it.' This solitude of a soul that can ignore all that is not in tune with it. . . .
I have had two letters from you, of the 6th and 7th. Perhaps this evening I shall have another. Do not let us allow our courage to be concerned only with the waiting for letters from each other. But the letters are our life, they are what bring us our joys, our happiness, it is through them that we take delight in the sights of this world and of this time.
If your eyes are not strong, that is a reason for not writing, but apart from your health do not by depriving me of letters hold back your heart from me.
November 14 (2nd letter).
DEAR MOTHER WHOM I LOVE,—Here we are again in our usual billet, and my heart is full of thoughts all tending towards you. I cannot tell you all that I feel in every moment, yet how much I should like to share with you the many pleasures that come one by one even in this monotonous life of ours, as a broken thread drops its pearls.
I should like to be able to admire with you this lovely cloud, this stretch of country which so fills us with reverence, to listen with you to the poetry of the wind from beyond the mountain, as when we walked together at Boulogne. But here a great many prosaic occupations prevent me from speaking to you as I feel.
I sent you with my baggage my note-book from August 18 to October 20. These notes were made when we could easily get at our light bags, in the calm of our trench-days, when our danger stopped our chattering, and I could let my heart speak. I found a happiness more intense, wider and fuller, to write to you about. That was a time of paradise for me. But I don't like the billets, because the comfort and the security, relaxing our minds, bring about a great deal of uproar which I don't like. You know how much I have always needed quiet and solitude. Still, I have excellent friends, and the officers are very kind.
But with a little patience and a few thoughts about you I can be happy. How kind this first half of November has been! I have not suffered once from cold. And how lovely it was! That All Saints' Day was nothing but a long hymn—from the night, with its pure moonlight on the dark amber of the autumn trees, to the tender twilight. The immense rosy dream of this misty plain, stretching out towards the near hills. . . . What a song of praise! and many days since then have sung the glory of God. Coeli ennarrant. . . .
That is what those days brought to me.
[Footnote 2: Part of this note-book has already been given.]
November 15, 7 o'clock.
Yesterday the wild weather, fine to see from the shelter of our billet, brought me apprehensions for to-night's departure, but when I woke the sky was the purest and starriest that one could dream of! How grateful I felt!
What we fear most is the rain, which penetrates through everything when we are without fire or shelter. The cold is nothing—we are armed against it beforehand.
. . . In spite of all, how much I appreciated the sight of this vast plain upon which we descended, lashed by the great wind. Above the low horizon was the wide grey sky in which, here and there, pale rents recalled the vanished blue.—A black, tragic Calvary in silhouette—then some skeleton trees! What a place! This is where I can think of you, and of my beloved music. To-day I have the atmosphere that I want.
. . . I should like to define the form of my conviction of better things in the near future, resulting from this war. These events prepare the way to a new life: that of the United States of Europe.
After the conflict, those who will have completely and filially fulfilled their obligation to their country will find themselves confronted by duties yet more grave, and the realisation of things that are now impossible. Then will be the time for them to throw their efforts into the future. They must use their energies to wipe out the trace of the shattering contact of nations. The French Revolution, notwithstanding its mistakes, notwithstanding some backsliding in practice, some failure in construction, did none the less establish in man's soul this fine theory of national unity. Well! the horrors of the 1914 war lead to the unity of Europe, to the unity of the race. This new state will not be established without blows and spoliation and strife for an indefinite time, but without doubt the door is now open towards the new horizon.
To Madame C——.
MY DEAR FRIEND,—How much pleasure and comfort your letter gives me, and how your warm friendship sustains my courage!
What you say to me about my mother binds me closer to existence. Thank you for your splendid and constant affection.
. . . What shall I tell you of my life? Through the weariness and the vicissitudes I am upheld by the contemplation of Nature which for two months has been accumulating the emotion and the pathos of this impassioned season. One of my habitual stations is on the heights which overlook the immense Woevre plain. How beautiful it is! and what a blessing to follow, each hour of the day and evening, the kindling colours of the autumn leaves! This frightful human uproar cannot succeed in troubling the majestic serenity of Nature! There are moments when man seems to go beyond anything that could be imagined; but a soul that is prepared can soon perceive the harmony which overlooks and reconciles all this dissonance. Do not think that I remain insensible to the agony of scenes that we behold all too often: villages wiped out by the artillery that is hurled upon them; smoke by day, light by night; the misery of a flying population under shell-fire. Each instant brings some shock straight to one's heart. That is why I take refuge in this high consolation, because without some discipline of the heart I could not suffer thus and not be undone.
November 17, in the morning.
DEAR MOTHER,— . . . I write to you in the happiness of the dawn over my dear village. The night, which began with rain, has brought us again a pure and glorious sky. I see once more my distant horizons, my peaked hills, the harmonious lines of my valleys. From this height where I stand who would guess that agricultural and peaceful village to be in reality nothing but a heap of ruins, in which not a house is spared, and in which no human being can survive the hell of artillery!