Thursday, September 01, 2016

`Basil Never Spoke of the Trenches'

Stevie Smith was not yet fourteen when the Battle of the Somme started in the summer of 1916. Smith, born in Hull, was already living in Palmers Green in North London, where she would live for the rest of her life. From her early years she knew a neighbor, Sidney Basil Sheckell, who would take her to High Church services. A character wounded at the Somme named “William” in Smith’s first novel, Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), is based on Sheckell, who served as a lieutenant in the Lincolnshire Regiment. After he was wounded at the Somme, Sheckell convalesced at Grovelands, a nineteenth-century home converted to a military hospital in Palmers Green. In Smith’s novel, her stand-in, Pompey, visits William at Grovelands (renamed “Scapelands”) and decides he resembles George III. He suffers from what Pompey calls “arrangement dementia” and we would call obsessive-compulsive disorder. He arranges the contents of his locker in a precise manner, as would many soldiers suffering from shell-shock.” Pompey notes the look in William’s eyes when the mania passes, and works in a Virgilian tag:

“…a look of sadness and fortitude, and perhaps a little patience. And his eyes would disengage themselves and withdraw. But this withdrawal was perhaps a withdrawal into the outside of himself and of time, a withdrawal into the Ewigkeit [eternity].

“And the person of William, and the lineaments of his face in their pain and weakness, might be allowed to say: It is the tears of things and our mortality touches us.”

After Sheckell’s death in 1968, Smith wrote a poem about him, “A Soldier Dear to Us,” which begins: “It was the War / I was a child.” Sheckell and other soldiers visit the house and gossip about church matters, Ronald Knox’s conversion to Catholicism, and A Spiritual Aeneid (1918), his autobiography. One subject was absent:  

“Basil never spoke of the trenches, but I
Saw them always, saw the mud, heard the guns, saw the duckboards,
Saw the men and the horses slipping in the great mud, saw
The rain falling and never stop, saw the gaunt
Trees and the rusty frame
Of the abandoned gun carriages. Because it was the same
I was reading at school.”

Smith took Sheckell’s reticence about the war as a lesson:

“Oh Basil, Basil, you had such a merry heart
But you taught me a secret you did not perhaps mean to impart,
That one must speak lightly, and use fair names like the ladies
They used to call
The Eumenides.”

“Eumenides” is a thoughtful euphemism for the Furies, the Greek female deities of vengeance. The Greek means “the kindly ones.” Smith concludes her poem with an envoi to Sheckell and the other soldiers she knew as a child:

“Tommy and Joey Porteous were killed in France. Now fifty years later
Basil has died of the shots he got in the shell crater
The shrapnel has worked round at last to his merry heart, I write this
For a memorial of the soldier dear to us he was.”

I recently read The First World War (Hutchinson, 1998) by the late military historian John Keegan, who writes these eloquently plain sentences about the Battle of the Somme: “The soldiers who died there were later buried where they had fallen. Thus the cemeteries are a map of the battle.”

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