Tuesday, November 13, 2012

'An Afternoon Tea'

As stated in my introductory post, my current PhD project centres around the life, works, and documents of poet FW Harvey. One of the first Will Harvey (like me, he preferred his middle name) poems that I read which I was particularly drawn to was 'An Afternoon Tea', published in his second book of poetry, Gloucestershire Friends: poems from a German prison camp.

The poem as published reads:

An Afternooon Tea
    (Triolet)

We have taken a trench
   Near Combles, I see,
Along with the French.
We have taken a trench
(Oh, the bodies, the stench!)
Won't you have some more tea?
   We've taken a trench
Near Combles, I see.

As Harvey stated below the title, this poem is a triolet. For those who are not students of poetry, a triolet is in the rhyme scheme ABaAabAB, where the capital letters indicate a line repeated verbatim. In a triolet, the meaning of the repeated lines is meant to change throughout the poem, often with a clever or ironic twist. The initial observation of having taken a trench is made somewhat lightly, as indicated by the slightly flippant 'I see'.
Private FW Harvey, prior to commissioning.

However the parenthetical statement acknowledging the disturbing aftermath of such an event gives the final two lines a gravity not felt in their incarnation in the first two lines. In the final line, 'I see' now implies insight.

After my first reading of the poem, I thought Harvey was demonstrating the removal of general officers and their staff from the fighting which they would be monitoring and observing from a point of safety, which would allow the enjoyment of an afternoon tea. This is a theme often associated with the Great War. Reading the poem this way, the senior officers and their staff observe through reports that an objective has been taken (French and British forces achieved success in the area around Combles during the initial months of the Battle of the Somme), pausing for a moment to consider the havoc wrought, before returning to their tea. The poem ends with them reflecting again on the seized trench with a bit more gravity.

The poem could also be taken to reflect the removal of civilians in England from the dire realities of the trenches, perhaps reading the reports in the afternoon paper at tea time. As Anthony Boden points out in his biography of Harvey, articles published in the 5th Gloucester Gazette (the trench-newspaper which Harvey helped to publish) indicate that he felt some disillusion with civilians' lack of knowledge of the realities of war, which he observed while on leave from France (Boden, pp. 103-107). In this case, the parenthesis indicate that the civilian reader has no concept of the bodies and the stench resulting from taking the trench.

As with most poems, there are many ways it could be read. I am sure that Will Harvey intended that it have several meanings. Having access to his manuscript draft of this poem that was sent to the publishers gives insight into his intent. Notes in the margin of this manuscript show that he originally wrote the triolet almost as a script, with the speakers of the lines indicated in the margin. His handwritten copy reads:

Host Speaking: - We've taken a trench
                          near Combles, I see,
                          Along with the French.
                          We've taken a trench
myself thinking:- (Oh, the bodies! The stench!)  <-- Italics
H. Speaking:-    Would you have some more tea?
                         We've taken a trench
                         Near Combles I see.

Harvey later crossed out the notes in his margin, perhaps wishing to allow the poem more ambiguity. However, this gives us some insight into what he was thinking as he wrote (I am not yet sure if the slight wording and punctuation changes were Harvey's or the publishers). Placing Harvey in this conversation gives further possible readings. One is that he is imagining himself home from the front, as he was earlier in 1916 when he was removed from the line and sent to England to receive officer's training. In this situation, he opposes his non-combatant host's casual remarks about the capture of the trench with his personal knowledge, which he holds back, of the truth of what happens when a trench is taken.

If we place this poem and Harvey's notes in a strict historical timeline, then we have another, and I believe most likely scenario. The gains near Combles were taken shortly after Harvey's capture in August 1916. Harvey likely felt guilty about not being able to support his comrades who were still fighting, as indicated in some of his poetry (Boden, pp. 145-146). In view of this, the poem may well have been Harvey's lament that the fight continues, while he and other prisoners relax to afternoon tea. They receive news from the front (surely restricted to some degree by their captors) of Allied advances, initially glad of the victorious news, then internally reflecting on the true horror of the event, which they are now spared from, before continuing to drink their tea, speaking again of the trench's capture with the somberness brought by personal experience and guilt. The horrific facts need not be stated out loud, the tea-drinkers all know it, and so they continue their tea, trying not to think too deeply about it.

Will Harvey was a spokesman for the hardships experienced by allied POWs during the war, as seen in his poem 'Prisoners', also published in Gloucestershire Friends. The poem speaks of the humiliation 'that we have come to this', having once been fighting men who 'Adventure found in gallant company' but now are 'Safe in stagnation'. His feelings of guilt were no doubt compounded for him in 1918 when he received news that his brother, Captain Eric Harvey, was killed during the final offensive of the war. Understanding this guilt, I am beginning to believe, is a key component to understanding Will Harvey.

Regardless of which reading of this poem one chooses to accept, it is written to make one think more deeply about the news one receives, and what actions may have occurred in making that news. It serves as a good reminder to always think of the second and third order effects of any action.

Sources:

Anthony Boden, FW Harvey: Soldier, Poet, revised edition (Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1998)

FW Harvey, Gloucestershire Friends: poems from a German prison camp. (London: Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd, 1917)

Gloucestershire Archives D12912/2/3, notebook 2, FW Harvey, Gloucestershire Friends: poems from a German prison camp. author's manuscript, 1917. (This is a temporary catalogue number and subject to change.)