Friday, August 10, 2018

A Yank at the Battle of Amiens: The Chipilly Ridge Sonnets of John Allan Wyeth

Unknown to most Americans, there was one A.E.F. unit which participated in the decisive Battle of Amiens, which began one hundred years ago on this date. The 131st Infantry Regiment of the American 33rd Division was detached to the British 58th Division in the reserve of the British III Corps-- which launched the attack on German positions north of the Somme in the pre-dawn hours of August 8, 1918.

The otherwise rapid Allied advance ran into one serious impediment: a bare seventy-five-foot-high ridge in an oxbow bend on the north bank of the Somme, near Chipilly, which was still in German hands. From this eminence, German machine gunners poured a devastating enfilade fire onto the flank of the Australian corps across the river at Hamel. The job of clearing this ridge was given to the American 131st Regiment. Far from being in position to launch the attack at the designated zero hour of dawn on the ninth, the 131st was dispersed over a wide area, with the 1st and 2nd Battalions spread throughout an area of trenches northwest of Heilly, and the 3rd Battalion at Pierrogot, some twenty miles to the northwest. Throughout the day and night of the eighth and most of the ninth, the three units struggled to cover the distance, locate one another, and get into position at the jumping-off line.

For the the men of the 131st, the night of August 8-9 was one of danger, fatigue, and utter disorientation. They had no information as to the nature of the terrain, and during the night of August 8-9, the 1st and 2nd Battalions were subject to both gas and artillery fire and able to locate one another only with the greatest difficulty. The 2nd Battalion marched without transports or Lewis machine guns and with one hundred pieces of small-arms ammunition per man; the 3rd Battalion had to cover the greatest distance without rations or water. After their night-long march, the men of the 3rd Battalion were to cover the final four miles at a run while carrying fully packs.

Their attack took place at 5:30 p.m., and despite the heavy machine-gun and artillery fire pouring down on them from Chipilly Ridge, the Americans could not be driven back. They repeatedly pressed theassault until the northern half of the ridge and southern end of nearby Gressair Wood were taken. Continuing the assault the following day, they took the remainder of Gressair Wood and by day's end were in possession of seven hundred German prisoners, thirty artillery pieces, one aircraft, and more than one hundred machine guns. A corporal of the 131st received the Medal of Honor for single-handedly capturing a machine-gun nest, killing five of the enemy, and taking fifteen prisoners.

A staff officer of the 33rd Division, 1st Lieutenant John Allan Wyeth, was on the periphery of all this. His mission, during the night of August 8-9, was to hand-deliver sealed messages from Divisional Headquarters at Molliens-au-Bois to the field headquarters of each of the three battlions of the 131st. Their exact locations, somewhere along the northern bank of the Somme in the vicinity of Sailly-le-Sec, were unknown. It was the mission of Lt. Wyeth and his companion, 1st Lieutenant Thomas J. Cochrane, to find them. The night was pitch-black, full of the racket of machine-gun and shell-fire, and laced with mustard gas.

Lt Wyeth, as it happened, was a cultured man, a recent Princeton graduate in languages and literature, and he rendered his experiences of that night into an accomplished, highly original cycle of six linked sonnets-- part of a much longer cycle of over fifty sonnets which covered the entirety of his service in the war. But it is this self-contained six-sonnet sequence in particular-- describing one soldier's stumblings through the metaphoric valley of death-- which delves most memorably into the nature of war.

Roe, Fred, 1864-1947; 4th Suffolks at Neuve Chapelle, France

~~~ The Road to Corbie ~~~

Our staff car flies and trails a long-spun haze 

over the looping road and the surge and fall 

of the heaving plains ~~ quick dusty tree trunks throw 

their flickering bars of shadow in our eyes. 

A wood ~~ men leading horses out to graze ~~ 

a misty bridge, and past the lumbering crawl 

of crowded lorries ~~ low hills all aglow 

with tufts of trees against the evening skies 

and long blond hill slopes catching level rays 

along their quilted flanks ~~ and under all, 

the deep earth breathing like a thing asleep. 

And there, Corbie ~~ her brittle walls brought low ~~ 

a brick-choked wreck, in which her ruins rise 

like gravestones planted in a rubbish heap.


~~~~~

Late afternoon to early evening, August 8. By the time they set out late in the day, Wyeth and Cochrane, speeding along in an open staff car, find the roads choked with "lumbering . . . crowded lorries" (British trucks), and columns of marching, pack-laden troops. There is only one outfit on the road from Molliens-au-Bois to the front on August 8, and this is the 3rd Battalion of the 131st. Both battalion and staff car are bound for the same general destination, the north bank of the Somme, where the rest of the 131st is scheduled to rendezvous. The destination specified in the original orders was the village of Heilly, where headquarters of the 58th British Division is located, but by 10 p.m. the 131st has been ordered to an assembly point on the Bray-Corbie road some three thousand yards to the south of Heilly, in readiness to attack an hour after midnight. Subsequently, however, given the exhausted state of the 1st and 2nd Battalions, and the fact that the terrain is not yet reconnoitered and the troops without supplies, and given that the 3rd Battalion is still in transit, the commanding general of the 58th decides to postpone the attack until evening of the 9th. The 131st is sent onward to the north bank of the Somme east of Corbie, to a "position in readiness" in the valleys between Vaux-sur-Somme and Sailly-le-Sec. Corbie, the ruined village through which Wyeth and Cochrane pass, is located some fifteen kilometers east of Amiens, on the north bank of the Somme, at the confluence of the Somme and the Ancre.

~~~~~

~~~ Corbie to Sailly-le-Sec ~~~


High staggering walls, and plank-spiked piles of brick 

and plaster ~~ jagged gables wrenched apart, 

and tall dolls' houses cleanly split in two ~~ 

Rooms gaping wide on every cloven floor, 

pictures askew that made your throat go thick, 

and humble furniture that tore your heart. 

"By God let's get out of here!"


                                                      We motored through 

to the poplar marsh along the river's shore. 

Sailly-le-Sec ~~ her church one candlestick 

on a broken altar, and beyond it, part 

of a rounded apse ~~ a dusty village husk 

of rubble and tile. Low hills ahead, 

all blue, and twinkling with the phosphorescent soar 

of rockets leaping in the fringe of dusk.


~~~~~


Dusk, August 8. The distance from Corbie, eastward along the north bank of the Somme, following a large north-curving arc of the river, and passing through Vaux-sur-Somme (where a gunner from the nearby 4th Australian Division brought down von Richthofen the previous April), to the village of Sailly-le-Sec is about five kilometers. At this point they are only a few kilometers from the front, and the skyline before them flashes with the storm of war.


~~~~~

~~~ Regimental Headquarters ~~~


Steep prickly slopes in shadow from the moon 

sagging behind us down the strident sky. 

Guns blaze and slam. The stars burn fever bright. 

A low white ridge ahead, and the crumpled sound 

of shelling.


                    "Jerry's out ~~"


                                                 A snarling croon 

wheels over us ~~ quick glittering tracers fly 

down a pale searchlight, and along the ground 

bombs blast into smoky yellow shot with light.


"Those runners will get you up there pretty soon. 

~~ Take them up to the Second Battalion."


                                                                   My tongue goes dry 

and scrapy, and my lips begin to jerk ~~


~"Look out for the gas ~they been pumping it in all night."


"Let's go, Tommy."


                                       "O God wait a minute ~~ 

I've found somthng wrong w' my mask, the damn thing doesnt work



~~~~~


After nightfall, August 8. The headquarters of the 131st Regiment is located about a thousand yard northwest of Sailly-le-Sec, in a small wood. Here they are so close to the front that the guns "blaze and slam" and Wyeth can feel vestiges of gas on his lips and throat. As they stand in headquarters, receiving directions, a bomber flies overhead, firing tracers, and soon they hear the explosion of bombs. From here, guided by runners, they will set out on foot to locate 2nd Battalion headquarters. But first, Cochrane must get his gas mask to work.


~~~~~

~~~ Through the Valley ~~~


"All right Tom?"


                               "Yup ~~ I got it fixed ~~ let's start."


A slipping crumbly path through scratching brush' 

down to the river road. Along the shore 

a clanging leap of fire behind black trees 

and a streak of shrillness slit the sky apart. 

A sand road ~~ horses, guns in a cloudy rush, 

and men, teeth clenched on tubes, who lashed and tore 

through silence. Black still slopes ~~ a distant sneeze. 

"Hear that? I tell you ~~ my eyes are beginning to smart." 


A vague black gulch ahead, and the secret hush 

of evil creeping in the dark ~~ We passed 

two soldiers, pain-white, and a man they bore 

between, blind twisting head and drunken knees, ~~ 

like Christ.


                        "Come on, Bud ~~There ~~You just been gassed."



~~~~~


The night of August 8-9. Gas masks on, and led by runners, lieutenants Wyeth and Cochrane set out on foot, in search of 2nd Battalion headquarters, situated roughly six hundred yards to the south, close to the river. Everywhere there are ominous signs of "evil creeping in the dark." With steel helmets for laurel, Virgil and Dante unholster their sidearms and wend their way through the Inferno of the Somme. Horse-drawn artillery crashes by, and columns of rushing soldiers, with both man and beast wearing alien masks in a futuristic nightmare, or a scene out of Bosch. A distant sneeze and their own burning eyes tell them that they are venturing into an area of lethal gas, and then they cross paths with their first gas victim, "... blind twisting head and drunken knees, ~ like Christ." ~~ and with that final image of Golgotha, the apocalyptic scene is complete.


~~~~~

~~~ Second Battalion Headquarters ~~~


"Where's the First Battalion? We haven't got any more 

idea than you have ~~ they might be anywhere. 

There's no front line. You'll just get caught in a raid." 


Cool darkness after the foggy slobbering mask. 

The long sky slashed with trundling swift uproar, 

rumbling and husky in the whistling air, 

and gas shells hustling into the valley made 

a wobbling whisper like a hurtling flask. 

We turned along the ridge to the river's shore. 

"By God what's the matter with all those men?"


                                                                               "Hey there~~ 

excuse me, sir ~~ you going by any chance 

to the dressing station? I got twenty men ~~ I'm afraid 

they're gassed pretty bad ~"


                                               "What were you going to ask?"


"For God sake tell 'em to hurry up the ambulance."



~~~~~


The late hours of the night of August 8-9. Wyeth and Cochrane have reached 2nd Battalion headquarters, located some six hundred yards south of Regimental headquarters, roughly eight hundred yards west of Sailly-le-Sec and a little north, and some six or seven hundred yards north of the river Somme. They immediately inquire after the location of 2nd Battalion headquarters, only to be told that no one knows. And so they strike out again on foot, but this time without guides or directions, once more heading south towards the river. Once again, a scene from the Inferno, this time a line of twenty gas victims in need of a savior, and by this chance meeting in the pathless night, their mission is altered from military to merciful, and they find themselves keeping a shepherd's watch over the victims until the ambulance arrives.


~~~~~

~~~ Regimental Dressing Station ~~~


Squat walls of sandbags ~~ and above, a sky 

all thin and cool with dawn and very far. 

Black empty stretchers. On the parapet, 

light out before the clangor of the gun. 

The bliss of strong fatigue ~~ and where I lie 

the canvas breathes between me and that star 

a bitter steam of blood. The air feels wet, 

and the stars go, forgotten one by one. 

Time to start back ~~ and watch those towns go by! 

"You ready to go? ~~ we got a lift in a car."


"Already?~~"


                              "Yeh, let's start, we got a long way 

to go."

    

             O God the ruins of Sailly-Laurette! 

~~like dying men that wake and find the sun 

and shut their eyes against another day.



~~~~~


Dawn, August 9. Exact location unknown, but somewhere in the vicinity of Sailly-Laurette, a kilometer or two to the east of Sailly-le-Sec, also on the Somme. They are now in territory which only the day before had been in German hands. In this makeshift dressing station, built of sandbags, and already full of wounded and dying men, Wyeth and Cochrane find themselves on the very edge of the combat zone, within three or four kilometers of where the Australians are pinned down by German machine-gun and artillery fire from Chipilly Ridge. At last their long, purgatorial night is over and a car is waiting to whisk them away from the front, back to the safety of Division Headquarters, but the dawn, nonetheless, is full of foreboding, and the ruins of Sailly-Laurette, the last thing they see as they drive away, become for Wyeth an image of profound hopelessness, of men who would rather die than face another day. And the men they are leaving behind, American, Australian, British and German, before this day is out, in the assault of Chipilly Ridge, will die by the hundreds.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


SOURCES:

~~~ Documents pertaining to the action at Gressaire Wood and Chipilly Ridge, August 8-10, 1918, in Huidekoper, Frederic Louis, History of the 33rd Division, Volume II, pp 410-24.

~~~ Huidekoper, History of the 33rd Division, Volume I, p 45.
~~~ Map of Operations, 131st Infantry, 33rd Div., AEF, Noon, Thursday, Aug. 8. Huidekoper, History of the 33rd Division, Vol IV (portfolio), map #20.
~~~ Situation Map. 33rd Div., AEF, Noon, Thursday, Aug. 8, 1918 (covering the stretch of the Somme, Amiens to Chipilly). Huidekoper, History of the 33rd Division, Vol IV (portfolio), map #22.
~~~ The War Diary of the 33rd Division, in Huidekoper, History of the 33rd Division, Vol II, pp 319-22.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Pilgrimage to Cassis: John Allan Wyeth’s 10-day sojourn with Duncan Grant on the Côte d'Azur

Cassis-sur-Mer in 1932

In April, 1932, a brief encounter in Cassis-sur-Mer between the unknown war poet, John Allan Wyeth, and the celebrated painter, Duncan Grant, had, by Wyeth's own account, a seminal effect on the poet’s life, bringing his career in literature to an end, and opening the door to a new life in art, where he would remain thereafter.  The change in career was accompanied by a change in residence, from six years in Rapallo, Italy (1926 to '32), to six years ('32 to '38) during which (as nearly as we can tell) he divided his time between Paris in winter/spring, and Bavaria in summer/fall (with sidetrips to Cyprus and Greece)--- an annual circuit which he continued to make until the onset of the Second World War.


Café Liautaud
Duncan Grant and the Bells, Clive and Vanessa, had spent their summers in a small house, "La Bergère," in a vineyard just outside Cassis-sur-Mer, since 1927, and would continue there until the outbreak of the war.  The relationship between the three was intimate, intricate, and radically unorthodox.  It has also been so thoroughly documented and discussed that there is no need to recount it here (for those seeking further particulars, see “Sources Consulted” at the end of this posting). 

What it was like for Wyeth--- alone and a stranger, appearing unannounced on an April midnight--- to be welcomed warmly into a household of such artistic and amatory legend, is hinted at in Wyeth’s opening letter. It changed the course of his life, and the emotional effects of that welcome were still recalled vividly after forty years.

After a night in Duncan's bed, followed by breakfast together on the terrace with Clive and Vanessa, Wyeth spent the next ten days in nearby Cassis at one of the hotels near the port-- probably the Hotel Cendrillon, where Grant was a familiar.  Each morning, with a bundle of sketchbooks under his arm,
Grant would meet with Wyeth at a harborside café-- perhaps the Café Liautaud, favored by local artists and literati--- to instruct the younger man in the finer points of the painter's art--- before finally sending him off to Paris with a letter of introduction to Jean Marchand at the Académie Moderne..

The letters between Wyeth and Grant, and Grant’s companion, Paul Roche, all date from 1976--- many years after the events described--- when Wyeth was 80, and Grant, 92.  At least one letter in the exchange, alluded to by Roche, is missing, and it may be that others are as well.  

~~BJ Omanson

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

John Wyeth to Duncan Grant, 30 January 1976                                                                                                                                                              

My dear Duncan,
I have wanted --- for years --- to write you a letter of infinite gratitude, devotion, a humble love and, as far as mortals may, undying affection.  You may, only with difficulty, call to mind the pilgrimage I made to you at Cassis-sur-Mer, under the aegis of Peter Murphy, who deserted me enroute when we drove through Toulon and sent me on alone to your midnight door --- many many happy years ago ---  It was early in April, I believe 1932 (year of the first great Picasso show in Paris) and a year of crisis for me --- dissolved by your immediately taking me in to your protection, care, instruction and I sincerely hope into some tiny part of your heart, as someone turning to you for help, discerning encouragement and trust in my possible gifts might hope to be judged and, as it turned out, saved by you.     
I have had the happiest life imaginable, thanks to you and and while I have so far got one Cypriot landscape into one museum --- Pittsfield Mass. (in permanent situ at the top of the stairway --- shades of the Winged Victory!)   I know that I have painted a goodly number of canvases you would have approved of, and sponsored, and that I will leave behind me a modicum of beauty dependent entirely upon your welcoming me into your friendship at that perilous turn of my life.          
I love you now as I loved you then, then with a trusting hope, now with an eternal gratitude, you were a sort of god to me, as an English Cezanne, and it was you who set me on my way in life.          

My niece, in Princeton, whom I am visiting at present, owns one of those amateur watercolours I submitted to your judgement and Ihage only to glance at it to feel myself back in your studio submissive to your criticism and hearing you say, when I asked you “What shall I do ---  shall I go ahead?” --- “I should think it would be worth almost anything to go ahead.”   When I look at it now we exchange grins over a secret shared.          
I somehow felt safe with you before your examinations of my (self made) amateurish artifacts the morning after Peter’s propulsion of me into your life --- for that short while at least.          
I remember that blissful sense of safety and rescue waking up in your bed, together, with Clive Bell coming in the front door to announce breakfast about to be served by Vanessa on the terrace below --- possibly determined to find out who had descended upon you five minutes before twelve the night before.         
Duncan, my long cherished and lived friend --- and saviour --- do you remember giving me morning hours of instruction, notes, formulas, tricks of you’re your own painting manner, many mornings (of the 10 days I spent in a harbour hotel in Cassis) --- my first and most vital hours of study --- in some matinal café where we met so many times before you sent me off to Paris and Academe Moderne with a letter to Jean Marchand.          
The rest is history for me at least, and not even some days in New York of acute suffering ---  we all go through it, it seems, could break the long record of much work, much dealing with and production of beauty and an incessant happiness that has filled a life of secret devotion to you.          
Will you let me include a Bavarian landscape snapshot --- in spite of browning of the greens in the photograph --- they are actually, on the canvas, the intense greens of Ireland, for your possible interest?           
I went to Berchtesgaden (Greece & Cyprus) almost every year of my 6 years in a studio just around the corner from Jean Marchand.          
I hope this snapshot may offer some justification of your crucial envoi of me into the life of a painter --- starting at 38, and not 80.  And happier than I can say.          
This epistle, starting simply as a record of love, has broken the limits of decency, and I must close it instantly.          
Do believe in my avowal of a love exceeding friendship and the most grateful thanks for your great role in my life.                                                                                                                

Love to you always,                                                                                                                
John Wyeth                                                                                                  

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Duncan Grant to John Wyeth, 11 April 1976  


Duncan Grant’s reply is dated April 11th, and is typed on letterhead from the El Farah hotel in Tanger, Morocco.  He begins by stating what a surprise Wyeth’s letter was, but “who would mind having a letter of love like that?”  He notes that the Cassis days “seem an epoch away”, but that he still has vivid dreams of “that sun-drenched life”, and that his happiness is increased knowing that their meeting has come to mean so much to Wyeth.  He expresses pleasure that his sending of Wyeth to Marchand “bore fruit a thousandfold”.  He comments on what an interesting life Wyeth has led, and wonders at Wyeth’s youth: “only 80!”, while he himself has just passed 92.  He alludes to a recent bout with pneumonia in November, and credits his survival to the devoted ministrations of his companion, the poet Paul Roche.  He writes that they expect to be back in England by mid-May.
This much of the letter is typewritten by Roche.  At the bottom of the page is a note in Grant’s almost-illegible hand:  “Yes my dear John, it is a great blessing to have behind me a modicum of beauty.  How much you and I have to be thankful for.  My heartfelt feelings, Duncan Grant.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Duncan Grant (at Charleston Farmhouse, Sussex) to John Wyeth, 3 August 1976


Grant writes that he was only just returned from Africa when he received Wyeth’s “welcome letter” and a second letter containing $1000 for purchasing one of Grant’s paintings, which he is to select.  Grant goes into some business details, and explains the transaction may have to be conducted through his dealer.  He then writes, “It makes me very proud and happy to be told that I have made another person’s life a happier one --- one cannot wish for more than one day to be allowed to look through the result of your happiness…”  Grant then commiserates with Wyeth on his recent illness, and explains that, while he himself has recovered his health, his legs remain paralyzed, though he is hopeful he may yet recover the use of them.  He apologizes for the illegibility of his handwriting and asks Wyeth to excuse it, as being “from an old man of 90 or so.”   

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~  

John Wyeth to Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, September 5, 1976


Dear Al
--- I hope you won’t find in my writing to you what must seem out of the blue, nor any note of presuming on a friendship of very long duration.          
Here’s what’s w/---- I am awaiting daily --- the expressing of a canvas by Duncan Grant which Ihabve purchased from (sight unseen at $1000) with a view of presenting it to you in your office on some appointment with you as a donation to your wonderful Museum of Modern Art.                
Duncan Grant was my first teacher, when I visited him in 1932 at Cassis sur Mer where he was domiciled in Clive Bell’s Villa La Bergere--- he occupying the upstairs studio over the ground floor quarters of Clive & Vanessa Bell.  I brought him my amateurish efforts at watercolour, and one half begun, half finished oil landscape, for him to criticize and judge whether or not I should begin a painting career.                
When, after his two hour consideration of my work, I asked him point blank, Tell me, what shall I do?  Shall I go ahead? And he answered “I should think it would be worth almost anything to go ahead.”  I took a room at a hotel on the port, and met Duncan almost every day for an hour’s instruction out of a pile of his notebooks which he brought down every day, at a café near the harbour.  A priceless and wonderful introduction to painting, for which he gave up his own mornings work for about 10 days.  This was in April, 1932.                
He told me to go to Paris and  study under Jean Marchand at the Academe Moderne, giving me a letter of introduction to Marchand.                
I went back to my family at Rapallo, settled my effects and took off for Paris, in mid-May to begin a 6-year study under Marchand’s direction --- with my studio near the Port d’Orleans around the corner from Jean Marchand’s studio-dwelling.                
This letter is not to be about me, but the matter in hand --- a grateful pupil’s desire to establish his master’s work in the First Museum in America --- and, failing here, to try the Metropolitan Museum, the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum in Providence where they already have two of Marchand’s portraits --- or possibly our own museum in Princeton, or the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass, where one of my landscapes in Cyprus is permanently housed.                
I believe Duncan Grant is, not yet, in any museum in America, though of course I may be wholly wrong.  You are familiar with Clive Bell’s estimate of him as the greatest painter in England --- he has, I know, two paintings in the National Gallery in London, at Millbank.                
He is now 91, legs paralyzed after a death’s door bout with pneumonia in Tangiere last winter, just beginning to walk with help --- and painting every day from 10 A.M. to sunset.  Certainly a great spirit there --- one can understand Paul Roche (the English poet) dedicating his translation of the Oedipis Plays of Sophocles “for Duncan Grant, my choice and master spirit of this age.”
At the end of 49 years of painting on my part, I suddenly wrote my thanks to Duncan Grant, for the marvelous happy life he gave me by setting me on my way under his initial and fruitful direction.      When his painting arrives I’ll have it handsomely framed and will bring it (plus my letter from Duncan Grant and Paul Roche, who is taking care of him during this convalescence) and confer with you exactly how to donate this as yet unseen canvas to your Museum.              
I will, later this fall, telephone you from Princeton for an appointment.  Do not bother to answer this, as I know how busy you are.  

Affectionately,
John Wyeth.  

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

John Wyeth to Duncan Grant, 9 September 1976                                                                                                              

My dear Duncan –                
I am in the first full flush of delight and joy in the pride of possession --- a casual ring of the doorbell and behold, as I had hoped, the carefully prepared, protected and sizeable packet from Charleston put into my hands by a benign and unfamiliar postman.  And not yet opened, for I shall wait a short time to gather about me a few choice initiates (who have been like myself eagerly awaiting your precious shipment) for a most private vernissage (sans varnish of course) --- this being one of the greatest moments of my life.                
I cried, the other day, indeed sobbed with joy on learning from Paul Roche’s letter (yet to be answered) – (in which he recorded a return of life to your temporarily stricken legs) --- that you were again able to walk --- if only so far as a little and with help --- God!   --- even now a filament of tears and a choking gullet and an almost agonizing joy at the news and its promise of ultimate complete recovery.  Deo gratias!
It so happens I got off a preparatory letter to the head of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., yesterday, notifying him of the purchase & dispatch of a canvas chosen by you, telling him I was expecting its arrival any day, and that, once handsomely framed, I would telephone for an appointment (and a viewing) in his office at the Museum, there to discuss the project of my donating it to his Museum --- the first in America.  This will be, I imagine, early in October, when I will be at my niece’s house at Skillman, 5 or 6 miles outside of Princeton.  Right now I am in the throes of unpacking, having decided not to move to other quarters until some time in the new year. May it be a blessed one for you, above all people in the world --- how well I understand Paul Roche’s dedication of his Sophoclean Trilogy --- my choice too, my master spirit too, since this painter would never have existed without the breath of life your creative genius inspired him with 44 years ago, at Cassis sur Mer. Most humbly, most gratefully and most lovingly yours ---
John Wyeth

I'll write in a few days to Paul Roche, and again to you.  Don’t bother to answer right now.  

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Paul Roche to John Wyeth, 24 October 1976  


Roche begins by telling Wyeth how pleased Grant was at Wyeth’s enthusiastic response at receiving Grant’s painting “The Pond in Winter.”  Regardless which museum accepts, or whether it is accepted by any museum at all, what matters most to Grant is that Wyeth himself is pleased by the painting.  Roche writes that the landscape was painted from a particular window in the Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex (Vanessa Bell’s bedroom). 

Roche then refers to a book that Wyeth had mentioned in a previous letter (missing), namely Virginia Woolf and her World by John Lehmann, and confesses that the book is not present in the farmhouse library, in spite of the fact that Grant had just called on Lehmann a few months before.  Roche then passes on the news that Grant had again succumbed to pneumonia the previous month (“with several days of wandering and delerium”), but had since recovered enough that he was able to be present at private showing of his work.  Roche thanks Wyeth for “his kind words” regarding his translation of Sophocles, which he goes on to discuss for several sentences, mentioning as well several recent translation projects. 

Roche then mentions Wyeth’s book of poems, This Man’s Army, which he urges Wyeth to send to them as a xeroxed copy, rather than a copy of the actual book which Roche supposes would be “ruinously expensive” (presumeably due to its scarcity). 

Roche inquires whether Wyeth has seen “the beautiful little film” made about Grant and Charleston by Christopher Mason, and mentions that he was able to arrange a showing of it to his students when he was teaching recently at the California Institute of the Arts.  Roche suggests that Wyeth might ask the Museum of Modern Art to show it, given the recent growth of interest in the Bloomsbury Group.  He then closes by mentioning a new book about the Bloomsbury painters by Richard Shone.  

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~  

John Wyeth to Duncan Grant, 16 December 1976

(letter missing).

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~  

Duncan Grant to John Wyeth (in Skillman, N.J.)--- an undated postcard written in Paul Roche’s hand  


Grant thanks Wyeth for the good news that his painting “Pond in Winter” is to find a home in the collection of the Rhode Island School of Design.  “What a lovely collection they have,” he writes, and says he has been poring over the catalogue and postcards of their collection which Wyeth sent.  He goes on to comment that Wyeth must have spent a great deal to have had the painting so beautifully framed.  He says he is glad that Wyeth will be spending “many weeks in the enchantingly green countryside of which you send me photographs.”  Finally, he reports that his show in Lewis was a success.  

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Paul Roche (at Aldermaston, Berkshire)  to John Wyeth, 10 January 1977  


Roche writes that both he and Grant owe Wyeth a letter, and refers to a letter dated Dec 16, which is no longer extant.  He passes on some news that Grant was ill with an infection over Christmas, when he was visiting Roche and his family in Aldermaston, Berkshire. 

Roche then turns to the subject of Wyeth’s book of poems, This Man’s Army, a copy of which Wyeth has recently sent them.   Roche begins with a question: that he is “dying to know” when the sonnets were written.  “They seem to have been written on the spot --- so fresh and lively are they --- “  and yet, he notes, they were published a decade after the war.  Roche relates that he read the entire sequence aloud to Grant.  “From the very first I was amazed: amazed that poetry of that kind and quality was written between the wars.  And if in fact they were actually written at the time, it makes it even more impressive.  There is none of that Georgian diffuseness & wooliness one might have expected from the period.  They could have been written today ---- they’re chiseled and precise and yet brilliantly meet the musical demands of the sonnet form.  As to the account itself, it moves with an irrefutable genuineness and vividness.”  Roche goes on to say that Grant was as affected by the sonnets as he was, and they are at a loss to understand why the sonnets have never been republished (they finally would be, but not for another 30 years --- long after Wyeth’s death).

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A final note:  a significant body of compelling, though circumstantial, evidence exists which  suggests that, while Wyeth was painting landscapes in Bavaria every summer and fall between the years 1932 to 1938, he may also have been passing information on Nazi activities to British intelligence.  This possibility will be fully explored in a future posting.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I am indebted to members of the Wyeth family: Ellie Wyeth, Marion Sims Wyeth and France Sloat, for permission to reproduce these letters of John Allan Wyeth, and for access to the letters of Duncan Grant and Paul Roche.  Particular thanks also to France Sloat and Dana Gioia, without whose generous assistance and invaluable suggestions this posting would not have been possible. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources Consulted


Bell, Quentin, and Virginia Nicholson, with photographs by Alen Macweeney.  Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden  (Henry Holt, 1997).

Caws, Mary Ann and Sarah Bird Wright.  Bloomsbury and France: Art and Friends  (Oxford University Press, 2000).

Gadd, David.  The Loving Friends: A Portrait of Bloomsbury  (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974).

Gioia, Dana.  "The Unknown Soldier: An Introduction to the Poetry of John Allan Wyeth," in John Allan Wyeth, This Man's Army: A War in Fifty-odd Sonnets  (University of South Carolina Press, 2008).

Nicholson, Virginia.  Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living, 1900-1939  (William Morrow, 2004).

Roche, Paul.  With Duncan Grant in Southern Turkey: A Journal  (Honeyglen Publishing, 1982).

Shone, Richard.  Bloomsbury Portraits  (Phaidon, 1976).

Spalding, Frances.  Duncan Grant: A Biography  (Chatto & Windus, 1997).

Spalding, Frances.  Vanessa Bell  (Ticknor & Fields, 1983).

Todd, Pamela.  Bloomsbury at Home  (Abrams, 2000).

Turnbaugh, Douglas Blair.  Duncan Grant and the Bloomsbury Group: An Illustrated Biography (London: Bloomsbury, 1987).

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Recent scholarly work on Wyeth

As we mark the centennial of America’s entry into the First World War, word of John Allan Wyeth’s wartime poetry continues its gradual dissemination among American and British scholars and readers.

At the 28th Annual Conference on American Literature to be held in Boston May 25-28, by the American Literature Association, Tim Kendall of Exeter University—who needs no introduction to the readers of this blog--- will be presenting a paper, “‘We none of us savvy their lingo’: John Allan Wyeth goes to War.”

I was curious to discover the extent to which the subject of American WWI literature might be featured in a major conference on American literature occuring so close to the centennial. I counted 157 sessions, only three of which concern the First World War and, of those three, two are sessions devoted to Hemingway. Only one session actually names the First World War in its title, and it contains just three presenters, two of whom are British. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion--- Centennial notwithstanding--- that the First World War as a seminal event in American literary history is an idea which, overall, elicits little interest among American academics.

Be that as it may, and although the WWI session, with only three presenters, will be one of the smaller sessions at the conference, the quality of this particular session promises to be very high. In addition to Professor Kendall's paper on Wyeth, two distinguished scholars of women’s literature in the First World War will be presenting papers on the wartime writings of two front-line nurses.

Alice Kelly, of the University of Oxford, who has published on Katherine Mansfield and the First World War, discovered a previously unknown war story by Edith Wharton, and has written about death scenes in the narratives of First World War nurses, will be presenting “Nurse, Suffragette, War Writer: Ellen N. La Motte’s Letters and The Backwash of War.”

Margaret R. Higonnet, of the University of Connecticut (Emeritus), whose previous books include Nurses at the front: writing the wounds of the Great War (Northeastern U Press: 2001) and Lines of fire: women writers of World War I (Plume: 1999), will be presenting “Helen Mackay: Accidentals and Small Things.”

If and when abstracts of these papers become available, I will add them here.

In the meantime, one can only hope that interest in American literature of the First World War among American scholars will be spurred by the Centennial and, perhaps, by the growing interest in WWI among the general public, as evidenced by popularity of the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, and of the recent series, “America’s Great War: World War I and the American Experience,” on PBS. If American scholars fail to rise to the occasion, it appears that British scholars are more than happy to take up the slack.

As far as John Allan Wyeth is concerned, all the current work on him seems to be taking place in the UK. Professor Kendall will be presenting another paper on Wyeth in St. Andrews, Scotland, in June, and will be publishing an article on Wyeth early next year in a book by Clutag Press. In addition, the BBC is said to be planning something on Wyeth, the exact nature of which has yet to be disclosed.

If any readers of this blog are aware of other scholarship on Wyeth, in either America or the UK, published or in progress, please send word and I will acknowledge it here.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Wyeth's war sonnets illustrated:~~~ 3. "Eu to Molliens-au-Bois: Motor Convoy" (a café on the Place Sadi Carnot in Eu)


Café du Tribunaux on left; Hotel de Ville on right.


               A café on the Place Sadi Carnot,
               and crowded trucks lined up along the square.
               "Vite, dejeuner, Madame--- une ommelette
               avec douze oeufs, compreee?"
                                                                    And halfway through,
               "They're cranking up!"
                                                        "Combien, quick---"
                                                                                            "Run, there they go!"




June 21, in Eu, just a few kilometers from the coast.  It is about 8.30 in the morning and Wyeth and his fellow officers are seated at some sidewalk tables with a view of the Place Sadi Carnot. 

Their most likely location is the Café du Tribunaux (shown in the postcard above from just before the war), as it is the largest café on the square, and able to seat the most officers.  Aanother possibility is the Le Grand Café du Paris, directly across the square, but it has only a couple of sidewalk tables.   

Thirty-seven British lorries, with a capacity of twenty men each, are lined up in the square, numbered consecutively on their side panels.  

Wyeth has only just placed his order when the drivers crank up the engines on their trucks and start pulling out, compelling Wyeth and the others to leap from behind their tables and sprint across the square to catch the convoy before it rumbles away out of town to the east. 


A wider view of the Place Sadi Carnot, with the Café du Tribunaux on the left, under the awning.

Café du Tribunaux on left; Hotel de Ville on right.



 Le Grand Café du Paris

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Previously unknown wartime photograph of Wyeth and his brother comes to light


Thanks to Ms. France Sloat for this recently discovered photograph of her grandfather, Marion Sims Wyeth, and her grand-uncle, John Allan Wyeth, showing both men in uniform and probably taken sometime in late  1917 or early 1918..

The service records for each man, copied from Princeton in the World War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1932), are as follows: 

MARION SIMS WYETH (Class of 1910).  Entered army October 30, 1917, Garden City, New.York, 1st lieutenant, Air Service; stationed Garden City, October 30, 1917 to January 7, 1918; Camp Servier, South Carolina, January 7 to February  18, 1918; Kelly Flying Field, San Antonio, Texas, February to May 1918; commanding officer, 238th and 244th Aero Squadrons, Waco, Texas.  May to June 1918;  commanding officer, Aero Construction Company, Garden City, June to August 8, 1918; sailed for England, August 1918; American Rest Camp, Knotty Ash, Winchester, England; American Aviation Camp, Emsworth, Sussex, England, September to November 14, 1918; returned to U.S., November 21; discharged January 1, 1919.


JOHN ALLAN WYETH, Jr. (Class of 1915):  Entered army December 28, 1917, New York, NewYork, 2nd lieutenant, Corps of Interpreters; assigned 33rd Division, Divisional Headquarters, Camp Logan, Texas, January 3 to May 1, 1918; Camp Upton, N.Y., May 1 to 6, 1918; sailed for france May 1918; operations with British on the Somme until August 20, 1918, then at Verdun; Army of Occupation, Germany and Luxembourg; detached from 33rd Division and stationed at Paris, April 1919; returned to U.S. July 1919; discharged October 23, 1919.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Wyeth's war sonnets illustrated:~~~ 2. "Huppy"


An aerial view of Huppy with the church clearly visible
in the center of the village, and one end of the chateau
emerging from trees to the right.

 33rd Division Headquarters are established in the chateau in Huppy on the afternoon of 31 May, 1918, described by a field clerk with HQ as “a chateau, pleasantly situated amid trees, shrubbery and flowers.”

The speaker in Wyeth’s sonnet is evidently positioned somewhere just outside the park-like environs of this chateau, within sight of the “slim white belfry” of the village church, located close to the chateau entrance.

"... the slim white belfry by the park."

HUPPY

So many shadows that the air is green . . .
Light catches in the upper leaves and dies
along the slim white belfry by the park.
Ducks waddle home, self-conscious on the ground.
Some trim young Red Tabs in a limousine
scatter a drifting dust cloud in our eyes.
A soldier blithely whistles Joan of Arc.
Gates shut and jangle . . . Bugles thinly sound . . .
Twilight, and after mess a round of ‘fine.’

They’re bombing Abbeville!  Lights crack, searchlights rise---
A woman runs and screams “Jules--- Jean--- ou etes-vous?
They fill the road . . . one hails me in the dark,
her five grandchildren pressing close around---
“Qu’allons-nous faire?--- Nous avons peur chez nous!”.
 



 The two postcards below show the chateau where Headquarters 33rd Division was established during its stay in Eu.



The postcard below provides a view of the road leading northward out of Huppy towards Abbeville, which was bombed by German Gothas every evening. As recorded in The History of the 33rdDivision,
“At this time the town of Abbeville was so severely bombed almost every night by enemy aeroplanes that slow evacuation was begun. The German preparation for their anticipated drive to the sea via Amiens and Abbeville was apparently well underway.”

The road leading north out of Huppy to Abbeville.

Wyeth's war sonnets illustrated:~~~ 1. "Oisemont: Place de la Mairie"

The "blank Mairie" and "the gaunt old belfry".

From time to time, as I come across appropriate period photographs, I will post descriptive passages from Wyeth’s war sonnets together with photographs that illustrate the same scenes. First up, the “Place de la Mairie” in Oisemont.


OISEMONT: Place de la Mairie
The shadows slant along the dusty square
that tilts haphazard past the blank Mairie.
Grey timid little houses hand in hand
step gingerly downhill. A yellow wall,
branded Hotel du Soleil d’Or--- down there
the zinc and tinware sign Quincaillerie.
Up from the rest camp swings a Highland band
and people swarm and clutter . . . children call.
The pipers drone a shrill nostalgic air
below my window in the Mercerie,
kilts flapping while the drumsticks thump and fly.
The gaunt old belfry tolls a reprimand,
and as the drums stop and the bagpipes squall
a long slow dingy funeral crawls by.


It is the evening of May 26th,1918. Lieutenant Wyeth and his fellow officers have been on board a series of troop trains since mid-afternoon of the previous day, travelling from Brest on the coast to Paris to Beauvais, arriving in Oisemont in the early evening, after nearly 30 hours of travel. 

Wyeth has been given a room in the Mercerie and is able to look down on the city square from his window, with still enough light remaining to see a Scottish band marching through the square, followed by a funeral procession. 

 This same Scottish band will be observed several days later, on June 2, by the men of the 131st Infantry, 33rd Division, as they pass through Oisemont on their way to the nearby village of Huppy, and it will be seen yet again, on the evening of June 6th, in Huppy itself, by a field clerk on the 33rd Division Headquarters staff, who notes in his diary that some of the kilted pipers have tattooed knees. 

The two landmarks mentioned in the sonnet, the “blank Marie” and the “gaunt old belfry” of the church, can be seen in the postcard above. The subsequent postcards show the same scene from several different angles. All the postcards date from shortly before the war.