Wednesday, February 17, 2016

`Remark Each Anxious Toil, Each Eager Strife'

After several disappointing efforts to incapacitate French and Russian troops with early forms of tear gas, the Germans on April 22, 1915, at the start of the Second Battle of Ypres, in Belgium, fired more than 150 tons of lethal chlorine gas canisters at two French colonial divisions. This was the first large-scale use of poison gas in history. A second gas attack two days later devastated a Canadian division. The battle ended on May 25, with the Germans making insignificant gains. The British and French, and later the Americans, began development of gas masks and their own chemical weapons. The Germans introduced mustard gas in 1917. More than 100,000 tons of chemical weapons were used in World War I, an estimated 500,000 troops were injured and some 30,000 killed. Of the German command’s reaction to that first gas attack at Ypres, L.F. Haber writes in The Poisonous Cloud: Chemical Warfare in the First World War (Clarendon Press, 1986):

“. . . it had been an experiment (they used the word Versuch), and it had been badly handled—insufficient gas had been released and the soldiers had lacked imagination. These were the natural reactions of disappointed innovators. In fairness to them it needs to be said that on the level of military technology, the 22 April had been an event of the first importance. The professionals looked at it rather differently. Some declared it had been a big muddle, others sought to exculpate themselves by laying the blame on rival shoulders.”  

In the June 19, 1915 edition of The Outlook, an English literary journal, Ford Madox Ford reviewed two books Yerba Mate by Mrs. Cloudesley Brereton and Cathay by Ezra Pound. In the review, “From China to Peru,” Ford has some fun with the unlikely pairing, praises Pound’s renderings of Chinese poems as “things of a supreme beauty,” and then unexpectedly digresses:   

“Man is to mankind a wolf – homo homini lupus – largely because the means of communication between man and man are very limited. I daresay that if words direct enough could have been found, the fiend who sanctioned the use of poisonous gases in the present war could have been so touched to the heart that he would never have signed that order, calamitous, since it marks a definite retrogression in civilization such as had not yet happened in the Christian era. Beauty is a very valuable thing; perhaps it is the most valuable thing in life; but the power to express emotion so that it shall communicate itself intact and exactly is almost more valuable.”
Ford is writing less than two months after the first gas attack at Ypres. A month after his review appeared, he enlisted in the Welch Regiment at age forty-two. In July 1916, he was sent to the Somme in time for the bloodiest battle in English military history, and was blown into the air by the explosion of a German shell. He suffered memory loss and for three weeks remained incapacitated. Near the end of 1916, Ford wrote to Joseph Conrad: “I began to take a literary view of the war.” He was hospitalized again with lung problems exacerbated by exposure to poison gas, and in March 1917 was sent home as an invalid. For the rest of the war he was stationed at Redcar on the North Yorkshire coast, where he helped train troops. He was promoted to lieutenant and then to captain, and in 1918 held the temporary rank of brevet major. On Armistice Day, Ford was still at Redcar. He was discharged from the army on Jan. 7, 1919, and out of his wartime experience Ford crafted the tetralogy of novels Parade’s End (1924-1928), one of the last century’s greatest works of fiction.

What I find most profound about Ford’s 1915 review is the final sentence in the passage quoted above: “Beauty is a very valuable thing; perhaps it is the most valuable thing in life; but the power to express emotion so that it shall communicate itself intact and exactly is almost more valuable.” There’s a balance in the work of the most gifted artists between beauty of expression and emotional conviction. Too much pointless  beauty, we’re left with an aesthete’s mindless thumb-twiddling; too much unmediated emotion, an inarticulate shriek. The title of Ford’s review, “From China to Peru,” is an unacknowledged allusion to the opening lines of Dr.  Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (1749):

“Let Observation with extensive View,
Survey Mankind, from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious Toil, each eager Strife,
And watch the busy Scenes of crouded Life;
Then say how Hope and Fear, Desire and Hate,
O’er spread with Snares the clouded Maze of Fate,
Where wav’ring Man, betray’d by vent’rous Pride,
To tread the dreary Paths without a Guide;
As treach’rous Phantoms in the Mist delude,
Shuns fancied Ills, or chases airy Good.”

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