In Time of War


Giorgione, The Sunset, c. 1502 (detail)

by Vernon Lee

Summer, 1917

The three preceding notes on places were written in the three months before the war, and are likely enough the last of their kind I shall ever be able to write. For among the many things, spiritual even more than material, which the war will have wrecked and my generation can never see re-made, is the cult of the genius of places: frivolous, of course, compared with the hecatombs of life, wealth and virtue we are now offering to the Powers of Evil, but at all events decent and kindly, and needing, for its little chapels, hearts with nothing heroic about them, but swept clean of animosities and self-righteousness, let alone their being garnished with daily renewed flowers of sympathy and gratitude. Even if those hearts whereof they occupied a secret corner shall not have been ravaged like so many of the Genius Loci’s tangible abodes, the modest sanctuaries in question will remain locked up, and their keys mislaid, for many a year to come.

What has brought me to this conviction is the recent accident of re-reading one of my own little volumes of previous notes about Places. Reading one’s own old books is always a queer sentimental experience, so much reviving in the writer’s mind which does not stand printed in those, most often forgotten, pages. But on this particular occasion that has not been all. It was with an odd, new pleasure I found myself reading what I had written in former years: the relief of passing out of this devastated present into those tiny enclosures of happiness so safe in the Past; the consolation of thinking that, after all, the world of peace is still there, and that sooner or later this present captivity in Despair’s Castle must be over, and oneself free to see and feel it all once more. Altogether, a sense of happiness, such as one had not had for a long while. Then, shattering it suddenly, came the shock of recognizing that this is not the case; that the Past is gone; and that when,the war being over, we shall go out expecting to find it, that Past will no longer be there.

Though it sounds absurd when one says it, those beloved things of former peace somehow seem to exist alongside and separate, not yet merged in the horrors which now bear their name. Thus I find myself staring idiotically at the photographs of devastated Reims, much as I stared incredulously, when a child, at the illustrated papers showing the Tuileries and the Hotel de Ville, which the Parisian Insurgents had just burned down. I do not really believe in that Reims lying in ruins; the Reims in my mind is too familiar and credible: Reims where one halted on the southward journey to meet friends who had been away from England during one’s stay there. One turned back a corner of curtain in the pleasant dining-room of the Lion d’Or, to see, opposite and aloft, the tiers and tiers of rigid kings and saints etched black and white by the October moon; also the pinnacle with the centaur archer, solitary among the few pale stars in the luminous blue. Similarly, the next morning, there was the great cathedral looking in at one’s awaking. Then followed the afternoon hours, before parting once more from those briefly-met friends, while the carbuncle and emerald effulgences of the cathedral windows died away into sea-cave twilight filling the vast aisles. That Reims is still the real one. But it is there no longer. And some day I shall recognize that, and disbelieve in all except its ruins.

The same applies to Couci, at the foot of its chateau all flowery with borage. And to so many other little white-and-slate, one-storied towns of north-eastern France, with their patisseries and their patient fisherman on his chair in mid-stream; uneventful homes of modest egoistic virtues abhorrent of the heroisms at present thrust upon them. And that brings me to a north-eastern French town where I once shared that selfsame life, but touched with old-fashioned exquisiteness: the autumn sunshine glinted through discreet shutters, making pools and flickers on the parquet, while giving the grapes in the stony little vineyard to the back their finishing turn of ripeness; meanwhile a cool sound of beating of wet linen rose all day from the lavoir moored in the brimful river Marne. The Marne! We English people scarcely knew its name and less its precise whereabouts in those days. And now, how much mourning in how many English homes does it not stand for! Marne and Aisne and Somme, and their thinly poplared tributaries, where one watched the barges, rising and sinking in the locks; a country it seemed so very uneventful, private, secluded. That country is gone; its very lie-of-the-land altered; become the abomination of desolation, new hideous hills and valleys of dead men as after an earthquake; for the rest, names on newspaper maps and bulletins.

And as to Belgium . . . The carillon I once listened to at Mechlin is silent in its lacework belfry; or did it go on jangling its old-world ditties, good heavens, over what? Our recognition of present realities once fully awakened, one is prepared to learn any day that Verona or Venice has been dealt with as Morosini’s own Venetians dealt with the Acropolis; or if you prefer, Darius in person.[1]

Or that those very ruins of Athens have been buried past all hope of excavation by future archaeologists. And beyond Venice, in the north-easternmost corner of her former dominions, I can see in my mind’s eye the Land (la Patria they call it) of Friuli, where we drove and drove in the August evenings, refreshed with raisin wine and rusks at feudal castle (Arcano, Colloredo) after feudal castle; or at some eighteenth-century villa, faded yet dainty like old chintz, which looked as if a peruked, powdered wizard had lifted it from off a side-canal of Venice, balustraded windows, central gable and entrance hall for storing oars and gondola-hoods, all complete, and set it down, magically stranded, in that flowery moraine of incredible emerald-green, sloping from the Adriatic to cobalt Alpine crags out of a Giorgionesque background. In those days no one seemed ever to have been there before; the Italians of other parts were not even decided on which syllable of its name to lay the stress: Friuli or Friuli. They have learned how to pronounce it now: for every other trainful of conscripts goes there; and from its tiny cities, remote in time as in space, Cividale, Venzone or Palmanova, there trickles ceaselessly the abominable stream of wounded men and of death-tidings down to the very ends of Sicily. So far for Italy, as I know it and shall, alas! know it.

But as to them, dear clean, old-fashioned German towns, from Treves and Munster to innermost Franconia and the Harz, in which we two English friends were wont to take, year after year, our happiest holidays; them I shall, most likely, never again set foot in. And, meanwhile, in all the talks of our past travel with which we try to forget these evil days, their name is never mentioned even by chance; and it is as if they had never existed at all. For though they stand intact in the material world and quite unchanged, no doubt, since we were there together, the thought of them has been sacked, burnt, defiled ten thousand times over by millions of indignant wills and by imaginations thirsty for reprisals. At the mercifullest, the plough and salt of oblivion have gone over the place where they once stood in our thoughts.

This indeed is one of the worst sides of this bad business of war: this which implies the unconscious wrecking of our own soul’s treasures and decencies, spiritual vandalism on which the stay-at-homes of all the nations (and priests, poets, sages at their head) have been incessantly engaged. Material damages can be made good, trees replanted, houses and churches built up once more in a few years, another Reims, for instance, replacing the old one. All visible traces may be covered up in our own lifetime. Besides, such damage is confined to frontier zones; and the immense bulk of Europe left as it was, cities and villages safe under their church towers; rivers undefiled and hills delectable as ever. Not so the landscape of the human soul. That is devastated on all sides, scarce a stone remaining in place of whatsoever we had built for our shelter, pride and joy, edifices of common wisdom, beauty and common hopes, of all that is too rare and needful to be a single people’s: all shattered, blasted, polluted, by the legion of devils, hoofed and snouted or slimily obscene, penned out of sight during the years of peace in subterranean places whose decorous bolted door War has set ajar, or thunderously thrown open.

A better world, at all events a safer one, is bound to rise in due course from these moral ruins. Let us hope it and do our best that it should be the case. But we of the older generations whose little hodfuls were brought to the building or patching of what has now gone under, will never see, except with eyes of faith, that new City of God, or rather of Man, that renovated moral landscape. And when once more we go forth, secretly, stupidly expecting the world’s familiar welcomings, we shall, instead, have to pick our way among wreckage still smoking with hate and defiled by fear and self-justification. So, like the people of Messina returning after the earthquake, we shall discover that the city which, from the ship’s bridge, looked for all the world just as we left it, is nothing but a shell of doors and windows, screening fallen and heaped-up streets, wherein we clamber up and down, unable to guess under which mound of plaster and of rags there lies our treasure and so much of our heart.


About the Author

Vernon Lee was the pseudonym of Violet Paget. She was an English essayist and novelist.

Note from Andre Gerard

[1] I found the following Venetian landscape in the Daily News of December 10, 1917:

From the foot of the mountain range the ground slopes gently to the river bank for a space of some three miles. It is thickly wooded, and among the trees are many white country houses standing out boldly in the Italian way instead of being hidden, as such places would be in England, behind high walls and in the recesses of a park.

All these pleasant villas and country homes are shuttered and look thoroughly deserted now, at least on the side towards our lines, but I saw the calm on several of them suddenly stimulated to volcanic life by the arrival of a British shell which punched a neat round hole in the sunlit facade and set every window belching heavy black smoke from the explosion within.

Details on the Text

Concluding essay of The Golden Keys and Other Essays on the Genius Loci (1925) by Vernon Lee, Litt. D.

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