I have been posting about the creation of modern myths about paganism, human sacrifice and other dark rural deeds in twentieth century Britain. Throughout, I have emphasized how artificial these ideas are, in the sense of being literary or artistic creations, commonly reinforced by the growth of sensationalist tabloid media. Many of the works in these genres are well known, but a few of the really good pieces are not. Here I will discuss a personal favorite of mine, an eerie and complex John Masefield poem that appeared in 1917, “Up on the Downs.” It is, I believe, a vastly under-rated poem of the First World War.
By way of background, John Masefield (1878 – 1967) was one of England’s leading poets, and a major figure in the Georgian school. Although too old for military service in 1914, he served as an orderly in a British hospital in France. He was also an active propagandist for the British cause, whose lecture tours were particularly influential for US audiences. His poem, August 1914, was widely anthologized, and his books included The Old Front Line (1917) and The Battle of the Somme (1919). I quote: “Gallipoli (London: William Heinemann, 1916) was hugely successful, selling well over 40,000 copies between September 1916 and March 1917: it is generally agreed that it is one of the most effective pieces of non-fiction about the war to emerge between 1914 and 1918. Glory in defeat, and the heroism of the common soldier, were themes that went down well in Britain.”
From 1914 through 1917, Masefield took up residence at Lollingdon Farm in Berkshire, and that setting inspired many poems and sonnets, which explored the deep roots of the landscape. In early 1917, he published the very varied collection Lollingdon Downs and Other Poems, which floats in time between the present day and the long-gone past, including Roman times.
Inevitably, the rural society of his time is deeply affected by the war. Describing a group of village beauties, he records:
Nan was the belle and she married her beau,
Who drank, and then beat her, and she died long ago,
And Mary, her sister, is married and gone
To a tea planter’s lodge, in the plains, in Ceylon.
And Dorothy’s sons have been killed out in France,
And May lost her man in the August advance.
Do we hear echoes of the then-recent Spoon River Anthology (1915), perhaps? Masefield had first encountered the work of Edgar Lee Masters on his visit to the US in 1916, and his first reactions were not favorable: he called Masters “a little like a Puritanical Belloc.” Even so, he may have taken something away (Constance Babington Smith, John Masefield (New York: Macmillan 1978), 140).
When we read a given Masefield passage, we are never too sure whether he is talking about wars and dying in Roman times, or in the present war. Differences between time periods seem elided, or eliminated. (Do note that the British and US editions of Lollingdon Downs differ substantially in length and the poems they include).
That theme of temporal slippage helps us approach “Up on the Downs,” which portrays a rural landscape that still knows the ghosts of ancient human sacrifice victims from centuries ago, those who were burned in something like a Druidic wicker man.
Up on the Downs
Up on the downs the red-eyed kestrels hover,
Eying the grass.
The field-mouse flits like a shadow into cover
As their shadows pass.
Men are burning the gorse on the down’s shoulder;
A drift of smoke
Glitters with fire and hangs, and the skies smoulder,
And the lungs choke.
Once the tribe did thus on the downs, on these downs burning
Men in the frame,
Crying to the gods of the downs till their brains were turning
And the gods came.
And today on the downs, in the wind, the hawks, the grasses,
In blood and air,
Something passes me and cries as it passes,
On the chalk downland bare.
But besides its pagan echoes, we recall that the poem was written at a time when so many British men were torn away from country villages to die in the fires of the First World War, that modern day holocaust. I would argue that it is definitely a war poem, and a classic of its kind. (See the account here of Masefield and the war). Witness the accumulation of words and images related to the battlefront – “A drift of smoke/ Glitters with fire and hangs, and the skies smoulder,/ And the lungs choke.” That is presumably a gas reference.
The kestrels of the opening verse suggest the aircraft maintaining observation over the front lines, through whose eyes we see the story unfolding below. Fearing attack from the air, soldiers below flee like field mice “as their shadows pass.” And then we have the “burning men in a frame.”
Reading the line “Crying to the gods of the downs till their brains were turning,” we think of soldiers under artillery bombardment in the trenches, praying for the noise and danger to cease, until their sanity failed.
As a comparison, we turn to Masefield’s wrenching description of the epic British artillery bombardment at the start of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, from The Old Front Line:
The fire continued and increased, all that day and all the next day, and the day after that. It darkened the days with smoke and lit the night with flashes…. The air was without wind, yet in seemed in a hurry with the passing of death. Men knew not which they heard, a roaring that was behind and in front, like a presence, a screaming that never ceased to shriek in the air ….. With the roaring, crashing and shrieking came a racket of hammers from the machine guns till men were dizzy and sick from the noise which thrust between skull and brain, and beat out thought. (Peter Vansittart, ed., John Masefield’s Letters from the Front 1915-1917 (London: Constable, 1984), 294).
I am struck by the concentration of words and motifs that recall the Up on the Downs poem – the smoke, the shrieking and screaming in the air, the passing of death, the failure of human minds to comprehend or withstand what was happening around them.
Whatever Masefield intended, it is hard to imagine informed readers in 1917 not understanding the poem in such terms. His record in the war makes it clear that this was no straightforward anti-war propaganda piece, but he is keenly alive to the devastation of the war. “Up on the Downs” is an evocative and truly disturbing piece, just one step away from a horror story.
Masefield’s biographer, Constance Babington Smith, explicitly says that his sole and solitary war poem was his well-known “August 1914,” but I really wonder about that (Constance Babington Smith, John Masefield, 117). I may just be ill-informed here, but am I the first reader to present “Up on the Downs” in this war context?