As I write, the sun falls upon the belfry which I see framed in the still sombre tree close beside me, while far away, beneath the last hills, the last swelling of the ground, the plain begins to reveal its precious detail in the rosy and golden atmosphere.
November 17, 11 o'clock.
The splendid weather is my great consolation. I live rather like an invalid sent to some magnificent country, whom the treatment compels to unpleasant and fatiguing occupations. Between Leysin and the trench where I am at present there has been only uncertainty. Nothing new has happened to our company since October 13.
This is a strange kind of war. It is like that between neighbours on bad terms. Consider that some of the trenches are separated from the enemy by hardly 100 metres, and that the combatants fling projectiles across with their hands: you see that these neighbours make use of violent methods.
As for me, I really live only when I am with you, and when I feel the splendour of the surroundings.
Even in the middle of conversations, I am able to preserve the sensation of solitude of thought which is necessary to me.
This morning, daylight showed us a country covered with hoar-frost, a universal whiteness over hills and forest. My little village looks thoroughly chilled.
I had spent the greater part of the night in a warm shelter, and I could have stayed there, thanks to the kindness of my superiors, but I am foolish and timid, and I rejoined my comrades from 1 o'clock till half-past 4.
Curiously enough, we can easily bear the cold: an admirable article of clothing, which nearly all of us possess, is a flour-sack which can be worn, according to the occasion, as a little shoulder-cape, or as a bag for the feet. In either case it is an excellent preserver of heat.
For the moment there runs in my mind a pretty and touching air by Handel. Also, an allegro from our organ duets: joyful and brilliant music, overflowing with life. Dear Handel! Often he consoles me.
Beethoven comes back only rarely to my mind, but when his music does awake in me, it touches something so vital that it is always as though a hand were drawing aside a curtain from the mystery of the Creation.
Poor dear Great Masters! Shall it be counted a crime against them that they were Germans? How is it possible to think of Schumann as a barbarian?
Yesterday this country recalled to my mind what you played to me ten years ago, the Rheingold: 'Libre etendu sur la hauteur.' But the outlook of our French art had this superiority over the beautiful music of that wretched man—it had composure and clarity and reason. Yes, our French art was never turbid.
As for Wagner, however beautiful his music, and however irresistible and attractive his genius, I believe it would be a less substantial loss to French taste to be deprived of him than of his great classical compatriots.
* * * * *
I can say with truth that in those moments when the idea of a possible return comes to me, it is never the thought of the comfort or the well-being that preoccupies me. It is something higher and nobler which turns my thoughts towards this form of hope. Can I say that it is even something different from the immense joy of our meeting again? It is rather the hope of taking up again our common effort, our association, of which the aim is the development of our souls, and the best use we can make of them upon earth.
November 19, in the morning.
MY VERY DEAR MOTHER,—To-day I was wakened at dawn by a violent cannonade, unusual at that hour. Just then some of the men came back frozen by a night in the trenches. I got up to fetch them some wood, and then, on the opposite slope of the valley, the fusillade burst out fully. I mounted as high as I could, and I saw the promise of the sun in the pure sky.
Suddenly, from the opposite hill (one of those hills I love so much), I heard an uproar, and shouting: 'Forward! Forward!' It was a bayonet charge. This was my first experience of one—not that I saw anything; the still-dark hour, and, probably, the disposition of the ground, prevented me. But what I heard was enough to give me the feeling of the attack.
Up till then I had never imagined how different is the courage required by this kind of anonymous warfare from the traditional valour in war, as conceived by the civilian. And the clamour of this morning reminds me, in the midst of my calm, that young men, without any personal motive of hate, can and must fling themselves upon those who are waiting to kill them.
But the sun rises over my country. It lightens the valley, and from my height I can see two villages, two ruins, one of which I saw ablaze for three nights. Near to me, two crosses made of white wood. . . . French blood flows in 1914. . . .
From the window near which I write I see the rising sun. It shines upon the hoar-frost, and gradually I discover the beautiful country which is undergoing such horrors. It appears that there were many victims in the bayonet charge which I heard yesterday. Among others, we are without tidings of two sections of the regiment which formed part of our brigade. While these others were working out their destiny, I was on the crest of the most beautiful hill (I was very much exposed also at other times). I saw the daybreak; I was full of emotion in beholding the peace of Nature, and I realised the contrast between the pettiness of human violence and the majesty of the surroundings.
That time of pain for you, from September 9th to October 13th, corresponds exactly with my first phase of war. On September 9th I arrived, and detrained almost within reach of the terrible battle of the Marne, which was in progress 35 kilometres away. On the 12th I rejoined the 106th, and thenceforward led the life of a combatant. On October 13th, as I told you, we left the lovely woods, where the enemy artillery and infantry had done a lot of mischief among us, especially on the 3rd. Our little community lost on that day a heart of gold, a wonderful boy, grown too good to live. On the 4th, an excellent comrade, an architectural student, was wounded fairly severely in the arm, but the news which he has since sent of himself is good. Then until the 13th, terrible day, we lived through some hard times, especially as the danger, real enough, was exaggerated by the feeling of suffocation and of the unknown which hemmed us round in those woods, so fine at any other time.
The important thing is to bear in mind the significance of every moment. The problem is of perpetual urgency. On one side the providential blessing, up till the present, of complete immunity. On the other, the hazards of the future. That is how our wish to do good should be applied to the present moment. There is no satisfaction to be had in questioning the future, but I believe that every effort made now will avail us then. It is a heroic struggle to sustain, but let us count not only on ourselves but on another force so much more powerful than our human means.
To-day we lead a bourgeoise life, almost too comfortable. The cold keeps us with the extraordinary woman who lodges us whenever we visit the village where we are billeted three days out of nine.
I will not tell you about the pretty view from the window where I write, but I will speak of the interior which shelters many of our days. By day we live in two rooms divided by a glass partition, and, looking through from one room to another, we can admire either the fine fire in the great chimney-place or the magnificent wardrobe and the Meuse beds made of fine old brass. All the delicate life of these two old women (the mother, 87 years old, and the daughter) is completely disorganised by the roughness, the rudeness, the kind hearts and the generosity of the soldiers. These women accept all that comes and are most devoted.
As for Spinoza, whose spirit you already possess, I think that you can go straight to the last theorems. You will be sure to have intuitive understanding of what he says about the soul's repose. Yes, those are moments experienced by us too rarely in our weakness, but they suffice to let us discover in ourselves, through the blows and buffetings of our poor human nature, a certain tendency towards what is permanent and what is final; and we realise the splendid inheritance of divinity to which we are the heirs.
* * * * *
Dear mother, what a happy day I have just spent with you.
There were three of us: we two and the pretty landscape from my window.
Seen from here, winter gives a woolly and muffled air to things. Two clouds, or rather mists, wrap the near hillside without taking any delicacy from the drawing of the shrubs on the crest; the sky is light green. All is filtered. Everything sleeps. This is the time for night-attacks, the cries of the charge, the watch in the trenches. Let our prayers of every moment ask for the end of this state of things. Let us wish for rest for all, a great amends, recompense for all grief and pain and separation.
Sunday, November 22, 9.30.
I write to you this morning from my favourite place, without anything having happened since last night that is worth recording—save perhaps the thousand flitting nothings in the landscape. I got up with the sun, which now floods all the space with silver. The cold is still keen, but by piling on our woollen things we get the better of it on these nights in billets. There is only this to say: that to-morrow we go to our trenches in the second line, in the woods that are now thin and monotonous. Of our three stations, that is the one I perhaps like the least, because the sky is exiled behind high branches. It is more a landscape for R——, but flat, and spoilt by the kind of existence that one leads there.
Hostilities seem to be recommencing in our region with a certain amount of energy. This morning we can hear a violent fusillade, a thing very rare in this kind of war, in which attacks are generally made at night, the day being practically reserved for artillery bombardments.
Dear mother, let us put our hope in the strength of soul which will make petition each hour, each minute. . . .
* * * * *
. . . Yes, it gives me pleasure to tell you about my life; it is a fine life in so many ways. Often, at night, as I walk along the road where my little duty takes me, I am full of happiness to be able thus to communicate with the greatness of Nature, with the sky and its harmonious pattern of stars, with the large and gracious curves of these hills; and though the danger is always present, I think that not only your courage, your consciousness of the eternal, but also your love for me will make you approve of my not stopping perpetually to puzzle over the enigma.
So my present life brings extreme degrees of feeling, which cannot be measured by time. Feeling produced, for instance, by beautiful leafage, the dawn, a delicate landscape, a touching moon. These are all things in which qualities at once fleeting and permanent isolate the human heart from all preoccupations which lead us in these times either to despairing anxiety, or to abject materialism, or again to a cheap optimism, which I wish to replace by the high hope that is common to us all, and which does not rely on human events.
All my tenderness and constant love for grandmother; for you, courage, calm, perfect resignation without effort.
DEAR MOTHER,—Here we are arrived in our shelters in the second line. We lodge in earth huts, where the fire smokes us out as much as it warms us. The weather, which during the night was overcast, has given us a charming blue and rosy morning. Unfortunately the woods have less to say to me than the marvellous spaces of our front lines. Still, all is beautiful here.
Yesterday my day was made up of the happiness of writing to you; I went into the village church without being urged by a single romantic feeling nor any desire for comfort from without. My conception of divine harmony did not need to be supported by any outward form, or popular symbol.
Then I had the great good fortune to go with a carriage into the surrounding country. Oh, the marvellous landscape—still of blue and rosy colour, paled by the mist! All this rich and luminous delicacy found definite accents in the abrupt spots made by people scattered about the open. My landscape, always primitive in its precision, now took on a subtlety of nuances, a richness of variety essentially modern.
One moment I recalled the peculiar outer suburbs of Paris with their innumerable notes and their suppressed effects. But here there is more frankness and candour. Here everything was simply rose and blue against a pale grey ground.
My driver, getting into difficulty with his horse, entrusted the whip to me to touch up the animal: I must have looked like a little mechanical toy.
We passed by the Calvaries which keep guard over the Meuse villages, a few trees gathered round the cross.
November 24, 3.30 (back from the march).
I have just received a letter of the 16th and a card, and a dear letter of the 18th. These two last tell me of the arrival of my packet. How glad I am to hear that! For a moment I asked myself whether I was right to send you these impressions, but, between us two, life has never been and can never be anything but a perpetual investigation in the region of eternal truths, fervent attention to the truth each earthly spectacle presents. And so I do not regret sending you those little notes.
My worst sufferings were during the rainy days of September. Those days are a bitter memory to every one. We slept interlocked, face against face, hands crossed, in a deluge of water and mud. It would be impossible to imagine our despair.
To crown all, after these frightful hours, they told us that the enemy was training his machine-guns upon us, and that we must attack him. However, we were relieved; the explosion was violent.
As for my still unwritten verse, 'Soleil si pale,' etc., it relates to the 11th, 12th, and 13th of October, and, generally, to the time of the battle in the woods, which lasted for our regiment from September 22nd to October 13th. What struck me so much was to see the sun rise upon the victims.
Since then I have written nothing, but for a prayer which I sent you five or six days ago. I composed it while I was on duty on the road.
November 25, in the morning.
. . . Yesterday, in the course of that march, I lived in a picture by my beloved primitives. Coming out of the wood, as we went down a long road, we had close by us a large farm-house, plumed by a group of bare trees beside a frozen pool.
Then, in the under-perspective so cleverly used by my dear painters with their air of simplicity, a road, unwinding itself, with its slopes and hills, bound in by shrubs, and some solitary trees: all this precise, fine, etched, and yet softened. A little bridge spanning a stream, a man on horseback passing close to the little bridge, carefully silhouetted, and then a little carriage: delicate balance of values, discreet, yet well maintained—all this in front of a horizon of noble woods. A kind of grey weather which has replaced the enchantment, so modern in feeling, of the nuances of last Sunday, takes me back to that incisive consciousness which moves us as a Breughel and the other masters, whose names escape me. Like this, too, the clear and orderly thronging in Albert Duerer backgrounds.
DEAREST MOTHER,—I didn't succeed in finishing this letter yesterday. We were very busy. And now to-day it is still dark. From my dug-out, where I have just arrived in the front line, I send you my great love; I am very happy. I feel that the work I am to do in future is taking shape in myself. What does it matter if Providence does not allow me to bring it to light? I have firm hope, and above all I have confidence in eternal justice, however it may surprise our human ideas. . . .
The position we occupy is 45 metres away from the enemy. The roads of approach are curious and even picturesque in their harshness, emphasised by the greyness of the weather.
Our troops, having dodged by night the enemy's vigilance, and come up from the valley to the mid-heights where the rising ground protects them from the infantry fire, find shelters hollowed from the side of the hill, burrows where those who are not on guard can have some sleep and the warmth of an Improvised hearth. Then, farther on, just where the landscape becomes magnificent in freedom, expanse, and light, the winding furrow, called the communication trench, begins. Concealed thus, we arrive in the trench, and it is truly a spectacle of war, severe and not without grandeur—this long passage which has a grey sky for ceiling, and in which the floor is covered over with recent snow. Here the last infantry units are stationed—units, generally, of feeble effective. The enemy is not more than a hundred metres away. From there continues the communication trench, more and more deep and winding, in which I feel anew the emotion I always get from contact with newly turned earth. The excavating for the banking-up works stirs something in me: it is as if the energy of this disembowelled earth took hold of me and told me the history of life.
Two or three sappers are at work lengthening the hollows, watched by the Germans who, from point to point, can snipe the insufficiently protected places. At this end the last sentry guards about forty metres.
You can picture the contrast between all this military organisation and the peace that used to reign here. Think what an astonishment it is to me to remember that where I now look the labourer once walked behind his plough, and that the sun, whose glory I contemplate as a prisoner contemplates liberty, shone upon him freely on these heights.
Then, too, when at dusk I come out into the open, what an ecstasy! I won't speak to you of this, for I feel I must be silent about these joys. They must not be exposed: they are birds that love silence. . . . Let us confine our speech to that essential happiness which is not easily affrighted—the happiness of feeling ourselves prepared equally for all.
November 29, in the morning (from a billet).
MY VERY DEAR MOTHER,—Yesterday evening I left the first line trenches in broken weather which, in the night, after my arrival here, turned into rain. I watch it falling through the fog from my favourite window. If you like I will tell you of the wonders I saw yesterday.
From the position described in my letter of yesterday, can be seen, as I have often written to you, the most marvellous horizon. Yesterday a terrible wind rent a low veil of clouds which grew red at their summits. Perhaps the background of my 'Haheyna' will give you a faint idea of what it was. But how much more majestic and full of animation was the emotion I experienced yesterday.
The hills and valleys passed in turn from light to shade, now defined, now veiled, according to the movement of the mists. High up, blue spaces fringed with light.
Such was the beauty of yesterday. Shall I speak of the evenings that went before, when, on my way along the road, the moon brought out the pattern of the trees, the pathetic Calvaries, the touching spectacle of houses which one knew were ruins, but which night seemed to make stand forth again like an appeal for peace.
I am glad to see you like Verlaine. Read the fine preface by Coppee to the selected works, which you will find in my library.
His fervour has a spontaneity, I might almost say a grossness, which always repels me a little, just because it belongs to that kind of Catholic fervour which on its figurative side will always leave me cold. But what a poet!
He has been my almost daily delight both here and when I was in Paris; often the music of his Paysages Tristes comes back to me, exactly expressing the emotion of certain hours. His life is as touching as that of a sick animal, and one almost wonders that a like indignity has not withered the exquisite flowers of his poetry. His conversion, that of an artist rather than of a thinker, followed on a great upsetting of his existence which resulted from grave faults of his. (He was in prison.)
In the Lys Rouge Anatole France has drawn a striking portrait of him, under the name of Choulette; perhaps you will find we have this book.
In Sagesse the poems are fine and striking because of the true impulse and sincerity of the remorse. A little as though the cry of the Nuit de Mai resounded all through his work.
Our two great poets of the last century, Musset and Verlaine, were two unhappy beings without any moral principle with which to stake up their flowers of thought—yet what magnificent and intoxicating flowers.
Perhaps I tire you when I speak thus on random subjects, but to do so enables me to plunge back into my old life for a little while. Since I had the happiness of getting your letters, I have not taken note of anything. Do not think that distractions by the way make me forgetful of our need and hope, but I believe it is just the beautiful adornment of life which gives it, for you and me, its value.
I am still expecting letters from you after that of the 22nd, but I am sure to get them here in this billet. Thank you for the parcel you promise: poor mothers, what pains they all take!
December 1, in the morning (from a billet).
I remember the satisfaction I felt in my freedom when I was exempted from my military duties. It seemed to me that if, at twenty-seven years old, I had been obliged to return to the regiment, my life and career would have been irretrievably lost. And here I am now, twenty-eight years old, back in the army, far from my work, my responsibilities, my ambitions—and yet never has life brought me such a full measure of finer feelings; never have I been able to record such freshness of sensibility, such security of conscience. So those are the blessings arising out of the thing which my reasonable human foresight envisaged as disaster. And thus continues the lesson of Providence which, upsetting all my fears, makes good arise out of every change of situation.
The two last sunrises, yesterday and to-day, were lovely. . . .
I feel inclined to make you a little sketch of the view from my window. . . .
* * * * *
It is done from memory; in your imagination you must add streaks of purple colour, making the most dramatic effect, and an infinite stretch of open country to right and left. This is what I have been able again and again to look upon, during this time. At this moment, the soft sky brings into harmony the orchards where we work. My little job dispenses me from digging for the time. Such are the happinesses which, from afar, had the appearance of calamities.
December 1 (2nd letter).
I have just received your letters of the 25th, 26th, and 27th, as well as a dear letter from Grandmother, so valiant, so full of spirit, and so clear-minded. It gave me great pleasure, and brings me a dear hope, of which I accept the augury with joy. Each one of your beloved letters, too, gives me the best of what life holds for me. My first letter of to-day replies to what you say about the acceptation of trials and the destruction of idols.
You will see that I think absolutely as you do, and I trust that there is in this hour no impeding idol in my heart. . . .
I think that my last prayer is in fact very simple. The spirit of the place could not have borne to be clothed in an art that was overloaded. God was everywhere, and everywhere was harmony: the road at night, of which I speak to you so often, the starry sky, the valley full of the murmuring of water, the trees, the Calvaries, the hills near and far. There would not have been any room for artifice. It is useless for me to give up being an artist, but I hope always to be sincere and to use art as it were only for the clothing of my conscience.
December 5, in the morning.
. . . We have come out of our burrows, and three days of imprisonment are followed by a morning in the open. It would be impossible to imagine such a state of mud.
Your pretty aluminium watch is the admiration of everybody.
Is Andre's wound serious? The mothers endure terrible agony in this war, but courage—nothing will be lost. As for me, I get on all right, and am as happy as one may be.
A terrific wind to-day, chasing the fine clouds. Keen air, in which the branches thrive. Beautiful moonlight on all these nights, all the more appreciated if one has been cheated of the day.
Dear, I am writing badly to-day because we are bewildered by the full daylight after those long hours of darkness, but my heart goes out to you and rests with you.
. . . Let us bring to everything the spirit of courage. Let us have confidence in God always, whatever happens. How much I feel, as you do, that one can adore Him only with one's spirit! And like you I think that we must avoid all pride which condemns the ways of other people. Let our love lead us in union towards the universal Providence. Let us, in constant prayer, give back our destiny into His hands. Let us humbly admit to Him our human hopes, trying at every moment to link them to eternal wisdom. It is a task which now seems full of difficulty, but difficulty is in everything in life.
Sunday, December 6.
I am happy to see you so determinedly courageous. We have need of courage, or, rather, we have need of something difficult to obtain, which is neither patience nor overconfidence, but a certain belief in the order of things, the power to be able to say of every trial that it is well.
Our instinct for life makes us try to free ourselves from our obligations when they are too cruel, too oft-repeated, but, as I am happy to know, you have been able to see what Spinoza understood by human liberty. Inaccessible ideal, to which one must cling nevertheless. . . .
. . . Dear mother, these trials that we must accept are long, but notwithstanding their unchanging form one cannot call them monotonous, since they call upon courage which must be perpetually new. Let us unite together for God to grant us strength and resource in accepting everything. . . .
You know what I call religion: that which unites in man all his ideas of the universal and the eternal, those two forms of God. Religion, in the ordinary sense of the word, is but the binding together of certain moral and disciplinary formulas with the fine poetic imagery of the great biblical and Christian philosophies.
Do not let us offend any one. Looked at properly, religious formulas, however apart they may remain from my own habit of mind, seem to me praiseworthy and sympathetic in all that they contain of aspiration and beauty and form.
Dear mother whom I love, let us always hope: trials are legion, but beauty remains. Let us pray that we may long continue to contemplate it. . . .
Monday, December 7.
MY BELOVED MOTHER,—I am writing this in the night . . . by six o'clock in the morning military life will be in full swing.
My candle is stuck on a bayonet, and every now and then a drop of water falls on to my nose. My poor companions try to light a reluctant fire. Our time in the trenches transforms us into lumps of mud.
The general good humour is admirable. However the men may long to return, they accept none the less heroically the vicissitudes of the situation. Their courage, infinitely less 'literary' than mine, is so much the more practical and adaptable; but each bird has its cry, and mine has never been a war-cry. I am happy to have felt myself responsive to all these blows, and my hope lies in the thought that they will have forged my soul. Also I place confidence in God and whatever He holds in store for me.
I seem to foresee my work in the future. Not that I build much on this presentiment, for all artists have conceived work which has never come to light. Mozart was about to make a new start when he died, and Beethoven planned the 'Tenth Symphony' in ignorance of the all too brief time that was to be allowed him by destiny.
It is the duty of the artist to open his flowers without dread of frost, and perhaps God will allow my efforts to fulfil themselves in the future. My very various attempts at work all have an indescribable immaturity about them still, a halting execution, which consorts badly with the real loftiness of the intention. It seems to me that my art will not quite expand until my life is further advanced. Let us pray that God will allow me to attain. . . .
As for what is in your own heart, I have such confidence in your courage that this certainty is my great comfort in this hour. I know that my mother has gained that freedom of soul which allows contemplation of the universal scheme of things. I know from my own experience how intermittent is this wisdom, but even to taste of it is already to possess God. It is the security I derive from knowledge of your soul and your love, that enables me to think of the future in whatever form it may come.
DEAR MOTHER,—P—— L——, in his charming letter, tells me he would willingly exchange his philosophers for a gun. He is quite wrong. For one thing, Spinoza is a most valuable aid in the trenches; and then it is those who are still in a position to profit by culture and progress who must now carry on French thought. They have an overwhelmingly difficult task, calling for far more initiative than ours. We are free of all burden. I think our existence is like that of the early monks: hard, regular discipline and freedom from all external obligations.
December 10 (a marvellous morning).
Our third day in billets brings us the sweetness of friendly weather. The inveterate deluge of our time in the first line relents a little, and the sun shows itself timidly.
Our situation, which has been pleasant enough during the last two months, may now be expected entirely to change.
The impregnability of the positions threatens to make the war interminable; one of the two adversaries must use his offensive to unlock the situation and precipitate events. I think the high command faces this probability—and I hardly dare tell you that I cannot regret anything that increases the danger.
Our life, of which a third part is flatly bourgeois and the two other parts present just about the same dangers as, say, chemical works do, will end by deadening all sensibility. It is true we shall be grieved to leave what we are used to, but perhaps we were getting too accustomed to a state of well-being which could not last.
My own circumstances are perhaps going to change. I shall probably lose my course, being mentioned for promotion to the rank of corporal, which means being constantly in the trenches and various duties in the first line. I hope God will continue to bless me.
. . . I feel that we have nothing to ask. If there should be in us something eternal which we must still manifest on earth, we may be sure that God will let us do it.
December 10 (2nd letter).
Happily you and I live in a domain where everything unites us without our having to write our thoughts. . . .
The weather is overcast again and promises us a wet time in the first and second lines.
The day declines, and a great melancholy falls too upon everything. This is the hour of sadness for those who are far away, for all the soldiers whose hearts are with their homes, and who see night closing down upon the earth.
I come to you, and immediately my heart grows warm. I can feel your attentive tenderness, and the wisdom which inspires your courage. Sometimes I am afraid of always saying the same thing, but how can I find new words for my poor love, tossed always through the same vicissitudes? Now that we are going to set out, perhaps we shall have to leave behind many cherished keepsakes, but the soul should not be strongly tied to fetiches. We are fond of clinging to many things, but love can do without them.
December 12, 10 o'clock (card).
A soft day under the rain. All goes well in our melancholy woods. In various parts of the neighbourhood there has been a terrible cannonade.
Received your letters of the 4th and 6th. They brought me happiness: they are the true joy of life. I am glad you visited C——. I hope to write to you at greater length. It is not that I have less leisure than usual, but I am going through a time when I am less sensible to the beauty of things. I long for true wisdom. . . .
December 12, 7 o'clock.
To-day, in spite of the changing beauty of sun and rain, I did not feel alive to Nature. Yet never was there such grace and goodness in the skies.
The landscape, with the little bridge and the man on horseback of which I have told you, softened under the splendour of the clouds. But 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. It told me of fairness that never fails; of the greenness of ivy and the redness of autumn, the rigidity of winter in the branches;—and then I understood that an instant of such contemplation is the whole of life, the very reward of existence, beside which all human expectation is nothing but a bad dream.
Sunday, December 13.
. . . After a refreshing night I walked to-day in these woods where for three months the dead have strewn the ground. To-day the vanishing autumn displayed its richness, and the same beauty of mossy trunks spoke to me, as it did yesterday, of eternal joy.
I am sure it needs an enormous effort to feel all this, but it must be felt if we are to understand how little the general harmony is disturbed by that which intolerably assails our emotions.
We must feel that all human uprooting is only a little thing, and what is truly ourselves is the life of the soul.
December 14 (splendid weather, with all the calm returned).
We are still here in the region of the first line, but in a place where we can lift our heads and behold the charm of my Meusian hills, clearing in the delicate weather.
Above the village and the orchards I see the lines of birches and firs. Some have their skeletons coloured with a diaphanous violet marked with white. Others build up the horizon with stronger lines.
I have been strengthened by the splendid lesson given me by a beautiful tree during a march. Ah, dear mother, we may all disappear and Nature will remain, and the gift I had from her of a moment of herself is enough to justify a whole existence. That tree was like a soldier.
You would not believe how much harm has been done to the forests about here: it is not so much the machine-guns as the frightful amount of cutting necessary for making our shelters and for our fuel. Ah well, in the midst of this devastation something told me that there will always be beauty, in man and in tree.
For man also gives this lesson, though in him it is less easily distinguished: it is a fine thing to see the splendid vitality of all this youth, whose force no harvest can diminish.
December 15, morning.
I have had your dear letter of the 9th, in which you speak of our home. It makes me happy to feel how fine and strong is the force of life which soon adjusts itself to each separation and uprooting. It makes me happy, too, to think that my letters find an echo in your heart. Sometimes I was afraid of boring you, because though our life is so fine in many ways, it is certainly very primitive, and there are not many salient things to relate.
If only I could follow my calling of painter I could have recourse to these wonderful visions that lie before me, and I could find vent for all the pent-up artist's emotion that is within me. As it is, in trying to speak of the sky, the tree, the hill, or the horizon, I cannot use words as subtle as they, and the infinite variety of these things can only be named in the same general terms, which I am afraid of constantly repeating. . . .
One must adapt oneself to this special kind of life, which is indigent as far as intellectual activity goes, but marvellously rich in emotion. I suppose that in troubled times for many centuries there have been men who, weary of luxury, have sought in the peace of the cloister the contemplation of eternal things; contemplation threatened by the crowd, but a refuge even so. And so I think our life is like that of the monks of old, who were military too, and more apt at fighting than I could ever be. Among them, those who willed could know the joy which I now find.
To-day I have a touching letter from Madame M——, whose spirit I love and admire.
Changeable but very beautiful weather.
It is impossible to say more than we have already said about the attitude we must adopt in regard to events. The important thing is to put this attitude in practice. It is not easy, as I have learnt in these last days, though no new difficulty had arisen to impede my path towards wisdom.
. . . Tormenting anxiety can sometimes be mistaken for an alert conscience.
Yesterday in our shelter I got out your little album—very much damaged, alas—and I tried to copy some of the lines of the landscape. I was stopped by the cold, and I was returning dissatisfied when I suddenly had the idea of making one of my friends sit for me. How can I tell you what a joy it was to get a good result! I believe that my little pencil proved entirely successful. The sketch has been sent away in a letter to some friend of his. It was such a true joy to me to feel I had not lost my faculty.
December 17 (in a new billet).
. . . Last night we left behind all that was familiar when we came out of the first-line trenches after three days of perfect peace there. We were told off to the billet which we occupied on October 6th and 7th. One can feel in the air the wind of change. I don't know what may come, but the serenity of the weather to-day seems an augury of happiness.
These have been days of marvellous scenes, which I can appreciate better now than during those few days of discouragement, which came because I allowed myself to reckon things according to our miserable human standards.
I write to you by a window from which I watch the sunset. You see that goodness is everywhere for us.
. . . I take up this letter once more in the twilight of an exceptional winter: the day fades away as calmly as it came. I am watching the women washing clothes under the lines of trees on the river bank; there is peace everywhere—I think even in our hearts. Night falls. . . .
December 19 (in a billet).
A sweet day, ending here round the table. Quiet, drawing, music. I can think with calm of the length of the days to come when I realise how swift have been these days that are past. Half the month is gone, and Christmas comes in the midst of war. The only thing for me is to adapt myself entirely to these conditions of existence, and, owing to my union with you, to gain a degree of acceptance which is of an order higher than human courage.
December 21, morning.
MY VERY DEAR MOTHER,—I have told you freely in my letters of my happiness; but the rock ahead of happiness is that poor humanity is in perpetual fear of losing it. In spite of all experience, we do not realise that in the eternal scheme of things a new happiness always grows at the side of an old one.
For myself, I have not to look for a new one. I have only to try to reconcile two wisdoms. One, which is human, prompts me to cultivate my happiness, but the other teaches me that human happiness is a most perishable flower.
We may say: Let us make use of the joys chosen by an upright conscience; but let us never forget how swiftly these pass.
Yes, the Holy Scriptures contain the finest and most poetical philosophy. I think they owe it to their affiliation to the oldest philosophies. There are many disputable things in Edouard Schure, but what remains is the divination which made him climb through all doctrine to the infinitely distant Source of human wisdom.
Do you know that those touching traditions of the Good Shepherd and the Divine Mother, so happily employed in our Christian religions, are the creations of the oldest symbolism? The Greeks derived them from their own spiritual ancestors; with them the good shepherd was called Hermes, the god of the migration of souls. In the same way, the type of our Madonna is the great Demeter, the mother who bears an infant in her arms.
One feels that all religions, as they succeeded each other, transmitted the same body of symbols, renewed each time by humanity's perpetually-young spirit of poetry.
December 23 (in the dark).
I had begun this letter yesterday, when I was forced to leave off. It was then splendid weather, which has lasted fairly well. But we are now back again in our first lines. This time we are occupying the village itself, our pretty Corot village of two months ago. But our outpost is situated in a house where we are obliged to show no sign of life, so as to conceal our presence from the enemy. And so here we are at nine o'clock in the morning, in a darkness that would make it seem to be late on Christmas eve.
Your dear letter lately received has given me great joy. It is true that Grace and Inspiration are two names for the same thing.
If you are going to see the pictures of the great poet Gustave Moreau, you will see a panel called La vie de l'humanite (I believe). It consists of nine sections in three divisions, called l'Age d'or, l'Age d'argent, l'Age de fer. Above is a pediment from which Christ presides over this human panorama. But this is where this great genius has the same intuition as you had: each of the three parts bears the name of a hero—Adam, Orpheus, and Cain, and each one represents three periods. Now, the periods of the golden age are called Ecstasy, Prayer, and Sleep, while the periods of the silver age are called Inspiration, Song, and Tears.
Ecstasy is the same as Grace, because the picture shows Adam and Eve in the purity of their souls, in a scene of flowers, and in the enjoyment of divine contemplation. The harmony of Nature itself urges them on in their impulse towards God.
In the silver age, Inspiration is still Grace, but just beginning to be complicated by human artifice. The poet Orpheus perpetually contemplates God, but the Muse is always at his elbow, the symbol of human art is already born; and that great human manifestation of God, Song, brings with it grief and tears.
Following out the cycle and coming to human evil, Gustave Moreau shows the iron age—Cain condemned to labour and sorrow.
This work shows that the divine moment may be seized, but is fugitive and can never remain with man. It explains our failures. People say that the picture is too literary, but it touches the heart of those who wish to break through the ice with which all human expression is chilled.
Undoubtedly Rembrandt was the Poet of genius par excellence, at the same time as he was pure Painter. But let us grant that ours is a less rich time, our temperaments less universal; and let us recognise the beauty of Gustave Moreau's poem, of which, in two words, you expressed the spirit.
December 24, morning.
Our first day in the outpost passed away in the calm of a country awaiting snow. It came in the night.
In the back gardens, which lie in sight of the Germans, I went out to see it, where it emphasised and ennobled the least of things. Then I came back to my candle, and I write on a table where my neighbour is grating chocolate. So that is war.
Military life has some amusing surprises. We had to come to the first line before two non-commissioned officers found a bath and could bathe themselves. As for me, I have made myself a water-jug out of a part of a 75.
. . . I will not speak of patience, since a reserve of mere patience may be useless preparation for the unknown quantity. But I must say that the time goes extremely quickly.
We spend child-like days; indeed we are children in regard to these events, and the benefit of this war will have been to restore youth to the hearts of those who return.
Dear mother, our village has just had a visit from two shells. Will they be followed by others? May God help us! The other day they sent us a hundred and fifteen, to wound one man in the wrist!
A house in which a section of our company is living is in flames. We have not seen a soul stirring. We can only hope that it is well with them.
I am deeply happy to have lived through these few months. They have taught me what one can make of one's life, in any circumstances.
My fellow-soldiers are splendid examples of the French spirit. . . . They swagger, but their swagger is only the outer form of a deep and magnificent courage.
My great fault as an artist is that I am always wanting to clothe the soul of the race in some beautiful garment painted in my own colours. And when people irritate me it is that they are soiling these beautiful robes; but, as a matter of fact, they would find them a bad encumbrance in the way of their plain duty.
What a unique night!—night without parallel, in which beauty has triumphed, in which mankind, notwithstanding their delirium of slaughter, have proved the reality of their conscience.
During the intermittent bombardments a song has never ceased to rise from the whole line.
Opposite to us a most beautiful tenor was declaiming the enemy's Christmas. Much farther off, beyond the ridges, where our lines begin again, the Marseillaise replied. The marvellous night lavished on us her stars and meteors. Hymns, hymns, from end to end.
It was the eternal longing for harmony, the indomitable claim for order and beauty and concord.
As for me, I cherished old memories in meditating on the sweetness of the Childhood of Christ. The freshness, the dewy youthfulness of this French music, were very moving to me. I remembered the celebrated Sommeil des Pelerins and the shepherds' chorus. A phrase which is sung by the Virgin thrilled me: 'Le Seigneur, pour mon fils, a beni cet asile.' The melody rang in my ears while I was in that little house, with its neighbour in flames, and itself given over to a precarious fate.
I thought of all happinesses bestowed; I thought that you were perhaps at this moment calling down a blessing upon my abode. The sky was so lovely that it seemed to smile favourably upon all petition; but what I want strength to ask for perpetually is consistent wisdom—wisdom which, human though it may be, is none the less safe from anything that may assail it.
The sun is flooding the country and yet I write by candle-light; now and then I go out into the back gardens to see the sun. All is light, peace falling from on high upon the deserted country.
I come back to our room, where the brass of the pretty Meusian beds and the carved wood of the cupboards shine in the half-light. All these things have suffered through the rough use the soldiers put them to, but we have real comfort here. We have found table-implements and a dinner-service, and for two days running we made chocolate in a soup-tureen. Luxury!
O dear mother, if God allows me the joy of returning, what youth will this extraordinary time have brought back to me! As I wrote to my friend P——, I lead the life of a child in the midst of people so simple that even my rudimentary existence is complicated in comparison with my surroundings.
Mother dear, the length of this war tries our power of passive will, but I feel that everything is coming out as I was able to foresee. I think that these long spells of inactivity will give repose to the intellectual machine. If I ever have the happiness of once more making use of mine, it is sure to take a little time to get moving again, but with what new vigour! My last work was one of pure thought, and my ambition, which all things justify, is to give a more plastic form to my thought as it develops.
Sunday, December 27, 9 o'clock (5th day in the first line).
It appears that the terrible position, courageously held by us on October 14th, and immediately lost by our successors, has been retaken, and 200 metres more, but at the price of a hundred casualties.
Dear mother, want of sleep robs me of all intelligence. True, one needs little of that for the general run of existence here, but I should have liked to speak to you. The only consolation is that our love needs no expression.
Very little to tell you. I was quite stupefied by the day's work yesterday, spent entirely in darkness. From my place I had only a glimpse of a pretty tree against the sky.
To-day, in the charming early morning I saw a beautiful and extremely brilliant star. I had gone to fetch some coal and water, and on the way back, when daylight had already come, that extraordinary star still persisted. My corporal, who, like me, was dodging from bush to bush back to our house, said:
'Do you know what that star is? It is the sign for the enemy's patrol to rally.'
It was true, and at first I felt outraged at this profanation of the sky, and then (apart from the ingenuity of the thing) I told myself that this star meant, for those poor creatures on the other side, that they could take the direction of safety. I felt less angry about it then. The sign had given me so much joy as a star that I decided to stick to my first impression.
Your Christmas letter came last night. Perhaps in this very hour when I am writing to you, mine of the same day is reaching you. At that time, in spite of the risk, I was enjoying all the beauty, but to-day I confess it is poisoned for me by what we hear of the last slaughter.
On the 26th we were made to remain on duty, in positions occupied only at night as a rule. Our purely defensive position was lucky that day, for we were exposed only to slight artillery fire; but on our right a regiment of our division, in one of the terrible emplacements of October 14th, received an awful punishment, of which the inconclusive result cost several hundred lives. Here in our great village, where our kind hostess knew, as we did, the victims, all is sadness.
. . . Nothing attacks the soul. The torture can certainly be very great, especially the apprehension, but questions coming from the distance can be silenced by acceptation of what is close. The weather is sweet and soft, and Nature is indifferent. The dead will not spoil the spring. . . .
And then, once the horror of the moment is over, when one sees its place taken by only the memory of those who have gone, there is a kind of sweetness in the thought of what really exists. In these solemn woods one realises the inanity of sepulchres and the pomp of funerals. The souls of the brave have no need of all that. . . .
I have just finished the fourth portrait, a lieutenant in my company. He is delighted. Daylight fades. I send you my thoughts, full of cheerfulness. Hope and wisdom.
January 3, 1915.
. . . Yesterday, after the first satisfaction of finding myself freed from manual work, I contemplated my stripes, and I felt some humiliation, because instead of the great anonymous superiority of the ordinary soldier which had put me beyond all military valuation, I had now the distinction of being a low number in military rank!
But then I felt that each time I looked at my little bits of red wool I should remember my social duty, a duty which my leaning towards individualism makes me forget only too often. So I knew I was still free to cultivate my soul, having this final effort to demand of it.
January 4, despatched on the 7th (in a mine).
I am writing to you at the entrance to an underground passage which leads under the enemy emplacement. My little job is to look out for the safety of the sappers, who are hollowing out and supporting and consolidating an excavation about twelve metres deep already. To get to this place we have to plunge into mud up to our thighs, but during the eight hours we spend here we are sheltered by earthworks several metres thick.
I have six men, with whom I have led an existence of sleeplessness and privation for three days: this is the benefit I derive from the joyful event of my new status; but as a matter of fact I am glad to take part in these trials again.
Besides, in a few days the temporary post which I held before may be given to me altogether. Horrible weather, and to make matters worse, I burnt an absolutely new boot, and am soaking wet, like the others, but in excellent health.
Dear, I am now going to sleep a little.
January 6, evening.
DEAR MOTHER,—Here we are in a billet after seventy-two consecutive hours without sleep, living in a nameless treacly substance—rain and filth.
I have had several letters from you, dear beloved mother; the last is dated January 1. How I love them! But before speaking of them I must sleep a little.
January 7, towards mid-day.
This interrupted letter winds up at the police-station, where my section is on guard. The weather is still horrible. It's unspeakable, this derangement of our whole existence. We are under water: the walls are of mud, and the floor and ceiling too.
. . . My consolations fail me in these days, on account of the weather. This horrible mess lets me see nothing whatever. I close with an ardent appeal to our love, and in the certainty of a justice higher than our own. . . .
Dear mother, as to sending things, I am really in need of nothing. Penury now is of another kind, but courage, always! Yet is it even sure that moral effort bears any fruit?
January 13, morning (in the trench).
I hope that when you think of me you will have in mind all those who have left everything behind: their family, their surroundings, their whole social environment; all those of whom their nearest and dearest think only in the past, saying, 'We had once a brother, who, many years ago, withdrew from this world, we know nothing of his fate.' Then I, feeling that you too have abandoned all human attachment, will walk freely in this life, closed to all ordinary relations.
I don't regret my new rank; it has brought me many troubles but a great deal of experience, and, as a matter of fact, some ameliorations.
So I want to continue to live as fully as possible in this moment, and that will be all the easier for me if I can feel that you have brought yourself to the idea that my present life cannot in any way be lost.
I did not tell you enough what pleasure the Revues Hebdomadaires gave me. I found some extracts from that speech on Lamartine which I am passionately fond of. Circumstances led this poet to give to his art only the lowest place. Life in general closed him round, imposing on his great heart a more serious and immediate task than that which awaited his genius.
January 15 (in a new billet), 12.30 P.M.
We no longer have any issue whatever in sight.
My only sanction is in my conscience. We must confide ourselves to an impersonal justice, independent of any human factor, and to a useful and harmonious destiny, in spite of the horrors of its form.
January 17, afternoon (in a billet).
What shall I say to you on this strange January afternoon, when thunder is followed by snow?
Our billet provides us with many commodities, but above all with an intoxicating beauty and poetry. Imagine a lake in a park sheltered by high hills, and a castle, or, rather, a splendid country house. We lodge in the domestic offices, but I don't need any wonderful home comforts to perfect the dream-like existence that I have led here for three days. Last night we were visited by some singers. We were very far from the music that I love, but the popular and sentimental tunes were quite able to replace a finer art, because of the ardent conviction of the singer. The workman who sang these songs, which were decent, in fact moral (a rather questionable moral, perhaps, but still a moral), so put his soul into it that the timbre of his voice was altogether too moving for our hostesses. Here are the ideal people: perhaps their ideal may be said not to exist and to be purely negative, but months of suffering have taught me to honour it.
I have just seen that Charles Peguy died at the beginning of the war. How terribly French thought will have been mown down! What surpasses our understanding (and yet what is only natural) is that civilians are able to continue their normal life while we are in torment. I saw in the Cri de Paris, which drifted as far as here, a list of concert programmes. What a contrast! However, mother dear, the essential thing is to have known beauty in moments of grace.
The weather is frightful, but one can feel the coming of spring. At a time like this nothing can speak of individual hope, only of great general certainties.
We have been since yesterday in our second line positions; we came to them in marvellous snow and frost. A furious sky, with charming rosy colour in it, floated over the visionary forest in the snow; the trees, limpid blue low down, brown and fretted above, the earth white.
I have received two parcels; the Chanson de Roland gives me infinite pleasure—particularly the Introduction, treating of the national epic and of the Mahabharata which, it seems, tells of the fight between the spirits of good and evil.
I am happy in your lovely letters. As for the sufferings which you forebode for me, they are really very tolerable.
But what we must recognise, and without shame, is that we are a bourgeois people. We have tasted of the honey of civilisation—poisoned honey, no doubt. But no, surely that sweetness is true, and we should not be called upon to make of our ordinary existence a preparation for violence. I know that violence may be salutary to us, especially if in the midst of it we do not lose sight of normal order and calm.
Order leads to eternal rest. Violence makes life go round. We have, for our object, order and eternal rest; but without the violence which lets loose reserves of energy, we should be too inclined to consider order as already attained. But anticipated order can only be a lethargy which retards the coming of positive order.
Our sufferings arise only from our disappointment in this delay; the coming of true order is too long for human patience. In any case, however suffering, we would rather not be doers of violence. It is as when matter in fusion solidifies too quickly and in the wrong shape: it has to be put to the fire again. This is the part violence plays in human evolution; but that salutary violence must not make us forget what our aesthetic citizenship had acquired in the way of perdurable peace and harmony. But our suffering comes precisely from the fact that we do not forget it!
January 20, morning.
Do not think that I ever deprive myself of sleep. In that matter our regiment is very fitful: one time we sleep for three days and three nights; another time, the opposite.
Now Nature gives me her support once more. The frightful spell of rain is interrupted by fine cold days. We live in the midst of beautiful frost and snow; the hard earth gives us a firm footing.
My little grade gets me some solitude. I no longer have my happy walks by night, but I have them in the day; my exemption from the hardest work gives me time to realise the beauty of things.
Yesterday, an unspeakable sunset. A filmy atmosphere, with shreds of tender colour; underneath, the blue cold of the snow.
Dear mother, it is a night of home-sickness. These familiar verses came to me in the peace:
'Mon enfant, ma soeur, Songe a la douceur D'aller la-bas vivre ensemble Au pays qui te ressemble.'
Yes, Beaudelaire's Invitation au voyage seemed to take wing in the exquisite sky. Oh, I was far from war. Well, to return to earthly things: in coming back I nearly missed my dinner.
January 20, evening.
Acceptation always. Adaptation to the life which goes on and on, taking no notice of our little postulations.
We are in our first-line emplacements. The snow has followed us, but alas, the thaw too. Happily, in this emplacement we don't live in water as we do in the trenches.
Can any one describe the grace of winter trees? Did I already tell you what Anatole France says in the Mannequin d'Osier? He loves their delicate outlines and their intimate beauty more when they are uncovered in winter. I too love the marvellous intricate pattern of their branches against the sky.
From my post I can see our poor village, which is collapsing more and more. Each day shells are destroying it. The church is hollowed out, but its old charm remains in its ruins; it crouches so prettily between the two delicately defined hills.
We were very happy in the second line. That time of snow was really beautiful and clement. I told you yesterday about the sunset the other day. And, before that, our arrival in the marvellous woods. . . .
. . . I have sent you a few verses; I don't know what they are worth, but they reconciled me to life. And then our last billet was really wonderful in its beauty. Water running over pebbles . . . vast, limpid waters at the end of the park. Sleeping ponds, dreaming walks, which none of this brutality has succeeded in defiling. To-day, sun on the snow. The beauty of the snow was deeply moving, though certainly we had some bad days, days on which there was nothing for us but the wretched mud.
It seems that we won't be coming back to this pretty billet. Evidently they are making ready for something; the regularity of our winter existence has come to an end.
Splendid weather, herald of the spring, and we can make the most of it, because in this place we are allowed to put our noses out of doors.
I write badly to-day. I can only send you my love. This war is long, and I can't even speak of patience.
My only happiness is that during these five and a half months I have so often been able to tell you that everything was not ugliness. . . .
. . . As for me, I have no desires left. When my trials are really hard to bear, I rest content with my own unhappiness, without facing other things.
When they become less hard, then I begin to think, to dream, and the past that is dear to me seems to have that same remote poetry which in happier days drew my thoughts to distant countries. A familiar street, or certain well-known corners, spring suddenly to my mind—just as in other days islands of dreams and legendary countries used to rise at the call of certain music and verse. But now there is no need of verse or music; the intensity of dear memories is enough.
I have not even any idea of what a new life could be; I only know that we are making life here and now.
For whom, and for what age? It hardly matters. What I do know, and what is affirmed in the very depths of my being, is that this harvest of French genius will be safely stored, and that the intellect of our race will not suffer for the deep cuts that have been made in it.
Who will say that the rough peasant, comrade of the fallen thinker, will not be the inheritor of his thoughts? No experience can falsify this magnificent intuition. The peasant's son who has witnessed the death of the young scholar or artist will perhaps take up the interrupted work, be perhaps a link in the chain of evolution which has been for a moment suspended. This is the real sacrifice: to renounce the hope of being the torch-bearer. To a child in a game it is a fine thing to carry the flag; but for a man, it is enough to know that the flag will yet be carried. And that is what every moment of great august Nature brings home to me. Every moment reassures my heart: Nature makes flags out of anything. They are more beautiful than those to which our little habits cling. And there will always be eyes to see and cherish the lessons of earth and sky.
Your dear letter of the 20th reached me last night. You must not be angry with me if occasionally, as in my letter of the 13th, I lack the very thing I am always forcing myself to acquire. But I ask you to consider what can be the thoughts of one who is young, in the fulness of productiveness, at the hour when life is flowering, if he is snatched away, and cast upon barren soil where all he has cherished fails him.
Well, after the first wrench he finds that life has not forsaken him, and sets to work upon the new ungrateful ground. The effort calls for such a concentration of energy as leaves no time for either hopes or fears. It is the constant effort at adaptation, and I manage it, except only in moments of the rebellion (quickly suppressed) of the thoughts and wishes of the past. But I need my whole strength at times for keeping down the pangs of memory and accepting what is.
I was thinking of the sad moments that you too endure, and that was why I encouraged you to an impersonal idea of our union. I know how strong you are, and how prepared for this idea. Yes, you are right, we must not meet the pain half-way. But at times it is difficult to distinguish between the real suffering that affects us, and that which is only possible or imminent.
Mind you notice that I have perfect hope and that I count on prevailing grace, but, caring more than anything to be an artist, I am occupied in drawing all the beauty out, in drawing out the utmost beauty, as quickly as may be, none of us knowing how much time is meted to us.
January 27, afternoon.
After two bad nights in the billet owing to the lack of straw, the third night was interrupted by our sudden departure for our emplacement in the second line.
Superb weather, frost and sun.
Great Nature begins again to enfold me, and her voice, which is now powerful again, consoles me.—But, dear, what a hole in one's existence! Yes, since my promotion I have lived through moments which, though less terrible, recalled the first days of September, but with the addition of many blessings. I accept this new life, with no forecast of the future.
January 28, in the morning sun.
The hard and splendid weather has this marvellous good—that it leaves in its great pure sky an open door for poetry. Yes, all that I told you of that beautiful time of snow came from a heart that was comforted by such triumphant beauty.
In the Reviews you send me I have read with pleasure the articles on Moliere, on the English parliament, on Martainville, and on the religious questions of 1830. . . .
Did I tell you that I learnt from the papers of the death of Hillemacher? That dear friend was killed in this terrible war.
MY VERY DEAR MOTHER,—I have your dear letters of the 26th and 27th; they do bring new life to me.
Up till now, our first-line emplacement, which this time is in the village, has been favoured with complete calm, and I have known once more those hours of grace when Nature consoles me.
My situation has this special improvement, that the drudgery I do now is done at the instance of the general good, and no longer at the dictation of mere routine.
DEAR MOTHER,—I go on with this letter in the billet, where the great worry of accumulated work fills up the void which Melancholy would make her own.
Dark days have come upon me, and nothingness seems the end of all, whereas all that is in my being had assured me of the plenitude of the universe. Yes, devotion, not to individuals but to the social ideal of brotherhood, sustains me still. Oh, what a magnificent example is to be found in Jesus and in the poor. That righteous aristocrat, showing by His abhorrent task the infinite obligation of altruistic duty, and teaching, above all, that no return of gratitude should be demanded. . . . To my experience of men and things I owe this tranquillity of expecting nothing from any one. Thus duty takes an abstract form, deprived of a human object.
An unspeakable sunrise to-day! Another spring draws near. . . . I want to tell you about our three days in the first line.
Snow and frost. We went down the slopes leading to our emplacement in the village. The night was then so beautiful that it moved the heart of every soldier to see it. I could never say enough about the fine delicacy of this country. How can I explain to you the chiselled effect, allied to the dream-like mists, with the moon soaring above? For three days my night-service took me straight to the heart of this purity, this whiteness.
Tarnished gold-work of the trees. And, in spite of the mist, many colours, rose and blue.
There are hours of such beauty that those who take them to themselves can hardly die. I was well in front of the first lines, and never did I feel better protected. This morning, when I came, a pink and green sunrise over the blue and rosy snow; the open country marked with woods and covered fields; far off, the distance, in which the silvery Meuse fades away. O Beauty, in spite of all!
DEAR BELOVED MOTHER,—Your letter of the 29th has this moment come to the billet. A nameless day, a day without form, yet a day in which the spring most mysteriously begins to stir. Warm air in the lengthening days; a sudden softening, a weakening of Nature. Alas, how sweet this emotion would be if it could be felt outside this slavery, but the weakness which comes ordinarily with spring only serves here to make burdens heavier.
Dear mother, how glad I am to feel the sympathy of those who are far away. Ah, what sweetness there is!
I am delighted by the Reviews; in an admirable article on Louis Veuillot I noticed this phrase: 'O my God, take away my despair and leave my grief!' Yes, we must not misunderstand the fruitful lesson taught by grief, and if I return from this war it will most certainly be with a soul formed and enriched.
I also read with pleasure the lectures on Moliere, and in him, as elsewhere, I have viewed again the solitude in which the highest souls wander. But I owe it to my old sentimental wounds never to suffer again through the acts of others. My dearly loved mother, I will write to you better to-morrow.
Last night, on coming back to the barn, drunkenness, quarrels, cries, songs and yells. Such is life!. . . But when morning came and the wakening from sleep still brought me memories of this, I got up before the time, and found outside a friendly moon, and the great night taking wing, and a dawn which had pity on me. The blessed spring day gilds everything and scatters its promises and hopes.
Dear, I was reflecting on Tolstoi's title, War and Peace. I used to think that he wanted to express the antithesis of these two states, but now I ask myself if he did not connect these two contraries in one and the same folly—if the fortunes of humanity, whether at war or at peace, were not equally a burden to his mind. By all means let us keep faithful to our efforts to be good; but in spite of ourselves we take this precept a little in the sense of the placards: 'Be good to animals.' How hard it is, in the midst of daily duties, to keep guard upon oneself.
A sleepless night. Hateful return to the barn. Such a fearful row that the corporals had to complain. Punishments.
In the morning, on the march, and, in order to rest us, work to-night!
MY DEAR BELOVED MOTHER,—After the sleepless night in our billet, we had to supply a working-party all the following night. So I have been sleeping up till the very moment of writing to you. Sleep and Night are refuges which give life still one attraction.
Mother dear, I am living over again the lovely legend of Sarpedon; and that exquisite flower of Greek poetry really gives me comfort. If you will read this passage of the Iliad in my beautiful translation by Lecomte de l'Isle, you will see that Zeus utters in regard to destiny certain words in which the divine and the eternal shine out as nobly as in the Christian Passion. He suffers, and his fatherly heart undergoes a long battle, but finally he permits his son to die, and Hypnos and Thanatos are sent to gather up the beloved remains.
Hypnos—that is Sleep. To think that I should come to that, I for whom every waking hour was a waking joy, I for whom every moment of action was a thrill of pride. I catch myself longing for the escape of Sleep from the tumult that besets me. But the splendid Greek optimism shines out as in those vases at the Louvre. By the two, Hypnos and Thanatos, Sarpedon is lifted to a life beyond his human death; and assuredly Sleep and Death do wonderfully magnify and continue our mortal fate.
Thanatos—that is a mystery, and it is a terror only because the urgency of our transitory desires makes us misconceive the mystery. But read over again the great peaceful words of Maeterlinck in his book on death, words ringing with compassion for our fears in the tremendous passage of mortality.
MOST DEAR AND MOST BELOVED,—I have your splendid letter of the first. Please don't hesitate to write what you think I would call mere chatter. Your love and the absolute identity of our two hearts appear in all your letters. And that is all I really care for. Yet they tell me a thousand things that interest me too.
We are living through hours of heavy labour. My rank gives me respite now and then; but for the men it means five nights at a time without sleep, and this repeatedly.
Another breathing-space in which, almost at my last gasp, I get a brief peace. The little reviving breath comes again. I have had the good luck to be appointed corporal on guard in delightful quarters, where I am in command. Perfect spring weather. And what can I say of this Nature? Never before have I so fully felt her amplitude of life. Hours and seasons following one another surely, infallibly, unalterably, in unchanging unity; the looker-on has a glimpse of the immensity of the force that first set them afoot.
I had often known the delight of watching the nearer coming of a season, but it had not before been given to me to live in that delight moment by moment. It is so that one learns, without the help of any kind of science, a certain intuition, vague perhaps, but altogether indisputable, of the Absolute. There was a man of science, possibly a great one, who declared that he had not discovered God under his scalpel. What a shocking mistake for an able mind to make! Where was the need of a scalpel, when the joy and the thrill of our senses are all-sufficient to convince us of the purpose commanding our whole evolution? The poet watches the coming of the seasons as it were great ships that will, he knows, set sail again. At times the storm may delay them, but at their next coming they will bring with them the rich fragrance of the unknown coasts. A season coming again to our own shores seems to bring us delights which it has learnt by long travel.
Ah, dearest mother, if one could have again a retreat for the soul! O solitude, for those worthy to possess it! How seldom is it inviolate!
It may possibly be a great intended privilege for our generation to be a witness of these horrors, but what a terrible price to pay! Well, faith, eternal faith, is over all. Faith in an evolution, an Order, beyond our human patience.
February 11 (2nd day in the front line).
In such hours as these one must perforce take refuge in the extra-human principle of sacrifice; it is impossible for mere humanity to go further.
Let go all poor human hope. Seek something beyond; perhaps you have already found it. As for me, I feel myself to be unworthy in such days to be anything more than a memory. I picked some flowers in the mud. Keep them in remembrance of me.
Courage through all, courage in spite of all.
February 13 (4th day in the front line).
BELOVED,—After the days of tears and of rebellion of the heart that have so shaken me, I pull myself together again to say 'Thy will be done.' So, according to the power and the measure of my faculties, I would be he who to the very end never despaired of his share in the building of the Temple. I would be the workman who, knowing full well that his scaffolding will give way and who has no hope of safety, goes on with his stone-carving of decoration on the cathedral front. Decoration. I am not one who will ever be able to lift the blocks of stone. But there are others for that job. Yes, I am getting back into a little quiet thinking. The equable tranquillity I had hoped for is not yet mine; but I have occasional glimpses of that region of peace and light in which all things, even our love, is renewed and transfigured.
I am now at the foot of a peaked hill where Nature has brought the loveliest lines of design together. Man is hunting man, and in a moment they will be locked in fight. Meanwhile the lark is rising.
Even as I write, a strange serenity possesses me. Something—extraordinary comfort. Be it a human quality, be it a revelation from on high. All around me men are asleep.
February 14 (5th day in the front line).
All is movement about us; we too are afoot. Even as the inevitable takes shape, peace revisits my heart at last. My beloved country is defiled by these detestable preparations of battle; the silence is rent by the preliminary gun-fire; man succeeds for a time in cancelling all the beauty of the world. But I think it will even yet find a place of refuge. For twenty-four hours now I have been my own self.
Dear mother, I was wrong to think so much of my 'tower of ivory.' What we too often take for a tower of ivory is nothing more than an old cheese where a hermit rat has made his house.
Rather, may a better spirit move me to gratitude for the salutary shocks that tossed me out of too pleasant a place of peace; let us be thankful for the dispensation which, during certain hours—hours far apart but never to be forgotten—made a man of me.
No, no, I will not mourn over my dead youth. It led me by steep and devious ways to the tablelands where the mists that hung over intelligence are no more.
In these latter days I have passed through certain hours, made decisive hours for me by the visibility of great and universal problems. We have now been for five days in the front line, with exceedingly hard work, hampered by the terrible mud. As our days have followed each other, and as my own struggle against the frightful sadness of my soul continued, the military situation was growing more tense, and the preparation for action was pushing on. Then came the announcement of the order of attack. There was only a day left—perhaps two days. It was then I wrote you two letters, I think those of the 13th and 14th; and really, as I was writing, I had within my heart such a plenitude of conviction, such a sweetness of feeling, as give incontrovertible assurance of the reality of the beautiful and the good. The bombardment of our position was violent; but nothing that man can do is able to stifle or silence what Nature has to say to the human soul.
One night, between the 14th and the 15th, we were placed in trenches that were raked by machine-guns. Our men were so exhausted that they were obliged to give place to another battalion. We were waiting in the wet and the cold of night when suddenly the notice came that we were relieved. We could not tell why. But we are here again in this village, where the men deluge their poor hearts with wine. I am in the midst of them.
Dear mother, if there is one thing absolute in human feeling, it is pain. I had lived hitherto in the contemplation of the interesting relations of different emotions, losing sight of the price, the intrinsic value, of life itself. But now I know what is essential life. It is that which clears the soul's way to the Absolute. But I suffered less in that time of waiting than I am suffering now from certain companionships.
February 16, 9 o'clock.
DEAR BELOVED MOTHER,—I was at dinner when they came to tell me we were off. I knew it would be so; the counter-orders that put off the attack cost us the march of forty kilometres in addition to the fatigues we had to undergo in the first line. As we were leaving our sector I noticed the arrival of such a quantity of artillery that I knew well enough the pause was at an end. But the soul has its own peace. It is frosty weather, with a sky full of stars.
February 19 (sent off in the full swing of battle).
One word only. We are in the hands of God. Never, never, have we so needed the wisdom of confidence. Death prevails, but it does not reign. Life is still noble. Friends of mine killed and wounded yesterday and the day before. Dearest, our messengers may be greatly delayed.
We are in billets after the great battle. And this time I saw it all. I did my duty; I knew that by the feeling of my men for me. But the best are dead. Bitter loss. This heroic regiment. We gained our object. Will write at more length.
February 22 (1st day in billet).
DEAR BELOVED MOTHER,—I will tell you about the goodness of God, and the horror of these things. The heaviness of heart that weighed me down this month and a half past was for the coming anguish to be undergone in these last twenty days.
We reached the scene of action on the 17th. The preparation ceased to interest me; I was all expectation of the event. It broke out at three o'clock: the explosion of seven mines under the enemy's trenches. It was like a distant thunder. Next, five hundred guns created the hell into which we leapt.
Night was coming on when we established ourselves in the positions we had taken. All that night I was actively at work for the security of our men, who had not suffered much. I had to cover great tracts, over which were scattered the wounded and the dead of both sides. My heart yearned over them, but I had nothing better than words to give them. In the morning we were driven, with serious loss, back to our previous positions, but in the evening we attacked again; we retook our whole advance; here again I did my duty. In my advance I got the sword of an officer who surrendered; after that I placed my men for guarding our ground. The captain ordered me to his side, and I gave him the plan of our position. He was telling me of his decision to have me mentioned, when he was killed before my eyes.
Briefly, under the frightful fire of those three days, I organised and kept going the work of supplying cartridges; in this job five of my men were wounded. Our losses are terrible; those of the enemy greater still. You cannot imagine, beloved mother, what man will do against man. For five days my shoes have been slippery with human brains, I have walked among lungs, among entrails. The men eat, what little they have to eat, at the side of the dead. Our regiment was heroic; we have no officers left. They all died as brave men. Two good friends—one of them a fine model of my own for one of my last pictures—are killed. That was one of the terrible incidents of the evening. A white body, splendid under the moon! I lay down near him. The beauty of things awoke again for me.
At last, after five days of horror that lost us twelve hundred men, we were ordered back from the scene of abomination.
The regiment has been mentioned in despatches.
Dear mother, how shall I ever speak of the unspeakable things I have had to see? But how shall I ever tell of the certainties this tempest has made clear to me? Duty; effort.
DEAREST BELOVED MOTHER,—A second day in billets. To-morrow we go to the front. Darling, I can't write to-day. Let us draw ever nearer to the eternal, let us remain devoted to our duty. I know how your thoughts fly to meet mine, and I turn mine towards the happiness of wisdom. Let us take courage; let me be brave among these young dead men, and be you brave in readiness. God is over us.
February 26 (a splendid afternoon).
DEAR MOTHER,—Here we are again upon the battlefield. We have climbed the hill from which it would be better to praise the glory of God than to condemn the horrors of men. Innumerable dead at the setting-out of our march; but they grow fewer, leaving here and there some poor stray body, the colour of clay—a painful encounter. Our losses are what are called 'serious' in despatches.
At all events I can assure you that our men are admirable and their resignation is heroic. All deplore this infamous war, but nearly all feel that the fulfilment of a hideous duty is the one only thing that justifies the horrible necessity of living at such a time as this.
Dear mother, I cannot write more. The plain is settling to sleep under colours of violet and rose. How can things be so horrible?
February 28 (in a billet).
DEAR BELOVED MOTHER, AND DEAR BELOVED GRANDMOTHER,—I am writing to you, having just struggled out of a most appalling nightmare, and out of Dantesque scenes that I have lived through. Things that Gustave Dore had the courage to picture through the text of the Divina Commedia have come to pass, with all the variety and circumstance of fact. In the midst of labours that happily tend to deaden one's feelings, I have been able to gather the better fruits of pain.
On the 24th, in the evening, we returned to our positions, from which the more hideous of the traces of battle had been partly removed. Only a few places were still scattered with fragments of men that were taking on the semblance of that clay to which they were returning. The weather was fine and cold, and the heights we had gained brought us into the very sky. The immensities appeared only as lights: the higher light, a brilliance of stars; the lower light, a glow of fires. The frightful bombardment with which the Germans overwhelm us is really a waste of fireworks.
I lay in a dug-out from which I could follow the moon, and watch for daybreak. Now and again a shell crumbled the soil about me, and deafened me; then silence came again upon the frozen earth. I have paid the price, I have paid dearly, but I have had moments of solitude that were full of God.
I really think I have tried to adapt myself to my work, for, as I told you, I am proposed for the rank of sergeant and for mention in despatches. Ah, but, dearest mother, this war is long, too long for men who had something else to do in the world! What you tell me of the kind feeling there is for me in Paris gives me pleasure; but—am I not to be brought out of this for a better kind of usefulness? 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. Well, if God does not intend to take away this cup from me, His will be done.