Monday, July 08, 2013
Black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease
Outline: an autobiography and other writings was published three years after the death of Paul Nash, in 1949. The autobiography was unfinished and only takes him up to the age of twenty-five, just before the First World War, although there are tantalising notes covering later years. The book also contains seven short essays (including 'Unseen Landscapes' and 'Swanage, or Seaside Surrealism') but its most vivid pages are a selection made by his wife Margaret of the letters she received from the Front in 1917. On February 20th Nash's regiment left for France: "Went with my brother officers of the Hampshires to the dullest cinema I have ever watched; returned to the docks, re-embarked, mist fell again. Stopped. About 6 o'clock, however, great noise of whistles, hoots, electric bells, guttural shouts - off - we are going to sail. Men break into a sort of cheer and a number in the stern begin to sing "Tipperary" rather doubtfully. Mist gradually blots out the screeching cranes and bulky pens and the long shapes of dock sheds, and slowly we push up Southampton water towards the sea."
Having arrived safely at Le Havre, they sailed down the Seine towards Rouen and the letters provide a lyrical description of the landscape slipping by. Rouen itself was "quite diverting" and he managed a walk out to a neighbouring village, the wind fresh and larks singing. On March 7th he wrote from the trenches of the new grass pushing up through the sandbags, "while clots of white dandelions, clover, thistle and twenty other plants flourish luxuriantly, brilliant growths of bright green against the pink earth." The letter lists some of the sketches he has completed and asks Margaret to send him a copy of the volume of poems just published by another member of the Artists' Rifles, Edward Thomas. Just over a month later Thomas was killed and Nash knew that the same thing could happen to him. "But if I am hit it does not matter, and I can think of you at the last and forever after till we meet again."
At several points Nash describes the kind of landscape conveyed so powerfully in paintings like We are Making a New World (1918). In a letter written on Good Friday 1917, he asks Margaret to "imagine a wide landscape flat and scantily wooded and what trees remain blasted and torn, naked and scarred and riddled. The ground for miles around furrowed into trenches, pitted with yawning holes in which the water lies still and cold or heaped with mounds of earth, tangles of rusty wire, tin plates, stakes, sandbags and all the refuse of war. In the distance runs a stream where the stringy poplars and alders lean about dejectedly, while farther a slope rises to a scarred bluff the foot of which is scattered with headless trees standing white and withered, hopeless, without any leaves, dead." Shells pass overhead all day and as the sun sinks "the shapes of the trench stand massy and cold, the mud gleams whitely, the sandbags have a hard, rocky lock, the works of men look like a freak of nature ... Twilight quivers above, shrinking into night, and a perfect crescent moon sails uncannily below pale stars."
The last letter in the selection concludes with regret that his drawings cannot convey this "frightful nightmare of a country more conceived by Dante or Poe than by nature ... The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease. They alone plunge overhead, tearing away the rotting tree stumps, breaking the plank roads, striking down horses and mules, annihilating, maiming, maddening, they plunge into the grave which is this land; one huge grave, and cast up on it the poor dead. Is is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artists interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and it may burn their lousy souls."