December 18, 1920. When posterity feels curious to discover what may have caused the disaster to our community it will get a little light from the merry confessions of our contemporary great folk. Let it read Colonel Repington's Diary, Mrs. Asquith's book, and the memoirs of General French. The general, of course, implies that he was so puzzled by the neutrality of time and space, and by the fact that the treacherous enemy was in trenches and used big guns. Our descendants may learn from these innocent revelations what quality of knowledge and temper, to be found only in a superior caste, guided the poor and lowly, and shaped our fate for us. They will know why wars and famines were inevitable for us, and why nothing could avert doom from the youth of our Europe. There is no disputing the importance of these confessions. But their relationship to literature? For that matter they might be linoleum. Yet there has been a book of confessions published recently which may be read as literature when the important gossip with the vast sales is merely curious evidence for historians equipped for psychological analysis. I mean Barbellion's Journal of a Disappointed Man.
It will interest our descendants to learn that outside the circle which Colonel Repington reports, at its dinner-tables where the ladies were so diverting, the fare usually excellent, and the gentlemen discussed the "combing out" of mere men for places like Ypres, there was genuine knowledge and warm understanding. Beyond those cheerful dinner-tables, and in that outer darkness of which the best people knew nothing except that it was possible to rake it fruitfully with a comb, there was a host of young men from which could be manifested the courageous intellectual curiosity, the ardour for truth, the gusto for life, and the love of earth, which we see in Keeling's letters and Barbellion's diary. All is shown in these two books in an exceptional degree, and in Barbellion's diary is expressed with a remarkable wit and acuteness, and not seldom, as in the description of a quarry, of a Beethoven Symphony, of a rock-pool of the Devon coast, with a beauty that is startling.
Keeling was killed in the War. Barbellion (who, as we know now, was Bruce Cummings) never went to France, for he was dying, though he did not know it, when he presented himself for medical examination. But it is clear that though secluded from the turmoil in a country cottage, paralysed, and his trunk already dead, Barbellion's sensitive mind and imaginative sympathy knew more of what was happening to his fellows in France, and what it meant for us all, than the combined Cabinet in Downing Street. That spark of dying light was aware when the luminaries on whom we depended were blind and ignorant. In his Last Diary, and within a day or two of his death, he wrote of the Peace Treaty (May, 1919): "After all the bright hopes of last autumn, justice will be done only when all the power is vested in the people. Every liberal-minded man must feel the shame of it." But did such men feel the shame of it? Refer to what the popular writers, often liberal-minded, said about the shame they felt at the time, and compare. To Barbellion, by the light of his expiring lamp, was revealed what was hidden from nearly all experienced and active publicists. Is there any doubt still of the superiority of imagination over hard-headedness?
Imagination instantly responds. Percolation is a slow process in the hard head of the worldly-wise. When we know that in the elderly, the shrewd, and the practical, the desire for material power and safety, qualified only by fear, served as their substitute for the City of God during the War, it is heartening to remember that there were select though unknown young men, mere subjects for "combing" like Barbellion, who made articulate an immense rebellious protest that was in the best of our boys; who showed a mocking intuition into us and our motives, as though we were a species apart; a scorn of the world we had made for them, a cruel knowledge of the cowardice and meanness at the back of our warlike minds, and a yearning for that world of beauty which might have been, but which the acts of the clever and the practical have turned into carrion among the ruins. Would it matter now if we were bankrupt, and our Empire among the things that were, if only we were turning to sack-cloth and ashes because of that dousing of the glim in the heart of the young?
This last diary of Bruce Cummings is sad enough, for he could but lie inert, listen to the last news of the War, and wonder incidentally who would come to him first--the postman bringing the reviews of his first book, or the bony old gentleman bringing the scythe. He felt, of course, the mockery of this frustration of his powers. He thought--and, it seemed, with good reason--that he was a tragic failure. But was he? Read his books, and admit that he accomplished a little that is beautiful and enduring, and that he did it obscurely at a time when they who held most of the fearful attention of the world were but working gravely on what their children would execrate.
Some critics find in the diary of Barbellion's last days evidence that he remembered he was writing for an audience. It may be there, but it is not plain to me. It is likely that if we were writing a paragraph while doubtful whether the hair which held the sword over us would last till we had finished, we might find we were not so joyously abandoned to pure art as we used to be. The interest of the book is that it is some more of Bruce Cummings when we could not have expected another line from him. Apart even from their literary value, it seems to me that some day his three volumes may prove to bear historic witness as important as that of Colonel Repington's diary. It was just such minds as Barbellion's, not uncommon in the youth of our war time--though in his case the unusual intuitions and adventurous aspirations were defined by genius--it was such minds that the war-mongers condemned and destroyed. Those men were selected for sacrifice because they had the very qualities which, when lost to the community, then it dies in its soul. They were candid with themselves, and questioned our warranty with the same candour, but were modest and reticent; they were kindly to us when they knew we were wooden and wrong, and did our bidding, judging it was evil. In France they subdued their insurgent thoughts--and what that sacrifice meant to them in the lonely night watches I have been privileged to learn--and surrendered, often in terrible derision, to our will; and then in cool and calculated audacity devised the very tasks in which the bravest and most intelligent would be the first to die.