In 1917, the year Richard Aldington saw his first active service in the Great War, his mother May Aldington published a poem in which she – roughly speaking – fantastized about his being killed in battle. This poem is interesting for the light it throws not only on RA’s conflicted relationship with his mother, but on the portrayal of Isabel Winterbourne in his war novel Death of a Hero, whose son’s death in battle becomes an excuse for the mother’s self-dramatization.
Before writing war poetry, May Aldington had some success as a romantic novelist with titles including Love Letters that Caused a Divorce, The Man of Kent and Meg of the Salt-Pans. The Westminster Review said of the last, ‘Mrs Aldington has succeeded in doing for a corner of rural Kent that which Thomas Hardy has done for his beloved Wessex’. For the bulk of her living, May ran the historic Mermaid Inn in Rye, Sussex, a frequent hangout of writers. RA was as ambivalent about her literary career as he was about his mother in general. He admired her drive (which he inherited) and acknowledged that her novels had ‘vitality’, yet despised what he saw as the vulgarity of both her fiction and her petit bourgeois atttitudes. ‘She keeps a saloon and writes inconceivable novels’, he once complained.
When, in 1917, the small volume Roll of Honour and Other Poems was printed in Rye, its attitudes were not only bourgeois but decidedly dated. May Aldington’s verse retained the patriotic, clean-limbed view of war that had greeted the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. It showed little contact with the three years of grim reality that had subsequently passed. May’s portrayal of a girl who wants only ‘to be a British Soldier’s bride’ shows an almost childlike naivete:
while you fight, I’ll knit and sew,
And love, the hours will quickly go.
(‘Love in War-Time)
As does her idealized portrait of an officer:
when the blessed word of peace
Shall be proclaimed, and this war cease,
He says, he will at war still play,
Because it makes a holiday.
(‘To a Major’)
This type of verse had been satirized in The Egoist, the radical magazine of which RA was literary editor. Reviewing poetry written in the first, optimistic phase of the war, RA’s fellow imagist John Gould Fletcher had roundly criticized its jingoism and false rhetoric. A rhyming lampoon, probably by RA himself, lamented ‘the little poets we hoped were dumb’ who nonetheless came, ‘at the sound of the drum’, to inflict their verses on the public.
The most striking part of Roll of Honour, however, was its title poem:
Roll of Honour
He was born on a summer’s day,
Just as a lark awoke to singing,
Soft in the bend of my arm he lay,
And the bells of Heav’n were ringing.
Brave he grew, as men are brave,
Swift to hear the big drum rolling,
Forth he marched to the bugle’s call
And the fifes of the Scots carolling.
“Killed in action,” this do they say?
With the fifes and the drums still calling!
Soft in the bend of my arm he lay,
These are tears of pride now falling.
This poem is an idealized rewriting of RA’s own military career. The speaker’s son is ‘swift to hear’ the call, marches off amid the atmosphere of a Boy’s Own story, and dies so heroically his loss can’t even be reckoned grief. In contrast, its author’s real-life son, though sharing the summer birthday of his fictional counterpart, was not an eager recruit. RA enlisted only in 1916, after debating whether to plead conscientious objection, and in two years at the front conspicuously failed to get killed or even wounded. ‘Roll of Honour’ contains little of what the son in the poem might have experienced at war. The son is portrayed simply as a fulfilment of the attitudes of his time and class, and his death as an occasion for the mother to display her own patriotism by declaring it a matter of ‘pride’ rather than loss.
‘The death of a hero! What mockery, what bloody cant!’ wrote RA in his 1929 novel Death of a Hero, the antithesis and satire of the attitudes exhibited in his mother’s verse. In the novel, the character of Isabel Winterbourne is based on May Aldington. Isabel’s son, George, is killed in the final days of the war. Readers know, while Isabel does not, that his ‘heroic’ death is actually suicide. When Isabel receives the news, she’s with a lover (‘Sam Browne’), and the scene becomes one of pulp melodrama in which the posturing of both participants takes precedence over the suffering of George:
In low moaning tones, founded on the best tradition of sensational fiction, Mrs. Winterbourne feebly ejaculated:
“Dead, dead, dead!”
“Who’s dead? Winterbourne [Isabel’s husband]?”
(Some apprehension perhaps in the attendant Sam Browne – he would have to propose, of course, and might be accepted.)
“They’ve killed him, those vile, filthy foreigners. My baby son.”
Sam Browne, still mystified, read the telegram. He then stood to attention, saluted (although not wearing a cap), and said solemnly:
“A clean sportin’ death, an Englishman’s death.”
Later, when relaying the news over the telephone, Isabel sobs theatrically to ensure the telephone operator recognizes her grief. ‘The tears Mrs. Winterbourne shed were not very natural,’ comments the novel’s narrator, ‘but they did not take long to dry.’ He might have been thinking of the tears of pride that close ‘Roll of Honour’, just as Isabel’s reliance on ‘sensational fiction’ for her emotional cues recalls May Aldington’s career as a romantic novelist.
In the days that follow, death lends flavour to Isabel’s life:
She found it rather exciting and stimulating at first, especially erotically stimulating. She was a woman who constantly dramatized herself and her life. She was as avid of public consideration as an Italian lieutenant, no matter what the quality of the praise.
In RA’s final blow, the ‘erotically stimulated’ Isabel sleeps with her lover while ostensibly bedridden with grief.
Despite their very different attitudes to war, ‘Roll of Honour’ and Death of a Hero reference shared themes. Both have a semi-autobiographical framework into which is inserted a death that is not biographical, an alternative fate for RA himself. That death provides a vehicle for a mother to dramatize her bereavement through patriotic sentiments, in which her maternal sacrifice is given precedence over the suffering of her son. In May Aldington’s poem, those sentiments are presented positively. Her son’s novel satirizes them as an example of the ‘cant’ on which it blames the slaughter of the war. Whether or not RA was responding specifically to his mother’s poem when he wrote the scenes of Isabel Winterbourne grieving, ‘Roll of Honour’ was a piece of cant that hit especially close to home.