First World War Poetry Digital Archive

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A LETTER FROM WALES by ROBERT GRAVES (Richard Rolls to his friend, Captain Abel Wright)

This is a question of identity Which I can't answer. Abel, I'll presume On your good-nature, asking you to help me. I hope you will, since you too are involved As deeply in the problem as myself. Who are we? Take down your old diary, please, The one you kept in France, if you are you Who served in the Black Fusiliers with me. That is, again, of course, if I am I--- This isn't Descartes' philosophic doubt, But, as I say, a question of identity, And practical enough.---Turn up the date, July the twenty-fourth, nineteen-sixteen, And read the entry there:

                      *'To-day I met

Meredith, transport-sergeant of the Second. He told me that Dick Rolls had died of wounds. I found out Doctor Dunn, and he confirms it; Dunn says he wasn't in much pain, he thinks.'*

Then the first draft of a verse-epitaph, Expanded later into a moving poem. 'Death straddled on your bed: you groaned and tried To stare him out, but in that death-stare died.' Yes, died, poor fellow, the day he came of age. But then appeared a second Richard Rolls (Or that's the view that the facts force on me), Showing Dick's features to support his claim To rank and pay and friendship, Abel, with you. And you acknowledged him as the old Dick, Despite all evidence to the contrary, Because, I think, you missed the dead too much. You came up here to Wales to stay with him And I don't know for sure, but I suspect That you were dead too, killed at the Rectangle One bloody morning of the same July, The time that something snapped and sent you Berserk: You ran across alone, with covering fire Of a single rifle, routing the Saxons out With bombs and yells and your wild eye; and stayed there In careless occupation of the trench For a full hour, reading, by all that's mad, A book of pastoral poems! Then, they say, Then you walked slowly back and went to sleep Without reporting; that was the occasion, No doubt, they killed you: it was your substitute Strolled back and laid him down and woke as you, Showing your features to support his claim To rank and pay and friendship, Abel, with me. So these two substitutes, yours and my own (Though that's an Irish way of putting it, For the I now talking is an honest I, Independent of the I's now lost, And a live dog's as good as a dead lion), So, these two friends, the second of the series, Came up to Wales pretending a wild joy That they had cheated Death: they stayed together At the same house and ate and drank and laughed And wrote each other's poems, much too lazy To write their own, and sat up every night Talking and smoking almost until dawn. Yes, they enjoyed life, but unless I now Confound my present feeling, with the past, They felt a sense of unreality In the proceedings---stop! that's good, proceedings, It suggests ghosts.---Well, then I want to ask you Whether it really happened. Eating, laughing, Sitting up late, writing each other's verses, I might invent all that, but one thing happened That seems too circumstantial for romance. Can you confirm it? Yet, even if you can, What does that prove? for who are you? or I? Listen, it was a sunset. We were out Climbing the mountain, eating blackberries; Late afternoon, the third week in September, The date's important: it might prove my point, For unless Richard Rolls had really died Could he have so recovered from his wounds As to go climbing less than two months later? And if it comes to that, what about you? How had you come on sick-leave from the Line? I don't remember you, that time, as wounded. Anyhow...We were eating blackberries By a wide field of tumbled boulderstones Hedged with oaks and nut-trees. Gradually A glamour spread about us, the low sun Making the field unreal as a stage, Gilding our faces with heroic light; Then oaks and nut-boughs caught this golden flood, Sending it back in a warm flare of green ... There was a mountain-ash among the boulders, But too full-clustered and symmetrical And highly coloured to convince as real. We stopped blackberrying and someone said (Was it I or you?) 'It is good for us to be here.' The other said, 'Let us build Tabernacles' (In honour of a new Transfiguration; It was that sort of moment); but instead I climbed up on the massive pulpit stone, An old friend, but unreal with the rest, And prophesied---not indeed of the future, But declaimed poetry, and you climbed up too And prophesied. The next thing I remember Was a dragon scaly with fine-weather clouds Poised high above the sun, and the sun dwindling And then the second glory. You'll remember That we were not then easily impressed With pyrotechnics, whether God's or Man's. We had seen the sun rise daily, weeks on end, And watched the nightly rocket-shooting, varied With red and green, and livened with gun-fire And the loud single-bursting overgrown squib Thrown from the minen-werfer: and one night From a billet-window some ten miles away We had watched the French making a mass-attack At Notre Dame de Lorette, in a thunderstorm. That was a grand display of all the Arts, God's, Man's, the Devil's: in the course of which, So lavishly the piece had been stage-managed, A Frenchman was struck dead by a meteorite, That was the sort of gala-show it was! But this Welsh sunset, what shall I say of it? It ended not at all as it began, An influence rather than a spectacle Raised to a strange degree beyond all wonder. And I remember that we looked and found A region of the sky below the dragon Where we could gaze behind all time and space And see as it were the colour of pure thought, The texture of emptiness, and at that sight We came away, not daring to see more: Death was the price, we knew, of such perfection And walking home ... fell in with Captain Todd, The Golf-Club Treasurer; he greeted us With 'Did you see that splendid sunset, boys? Magnificent, was it not? I wonder now, What writer could have done real justice to it Except, of course, my old friend Walter Pater? Ruskin perhaps? Yes, Ruskin might have done it.' Well, did that happen, or am I just romancing? And then again, one has to ask the question What happened after to that you and me? I have thought lately that they too got lost. My representative went out once more To France, and so did yours, and yours got killed, Shot through the throat while bombing up a trench At Bullecourt; if not there, then at least On the thirteenth of July, nineteen eighteen, Somewhere in the neighbourhood of Albert, When you took a rifle bullet through the skull Just after breakfast on a mad patrol. But still you kept up the same stale pretence As children do in nursery battle-games, 'No, I'm not dead. Look, I'm not even wounded.' And I admit I followed your example, Though nothing much happened that time in France. I died at Hove after the Armistice, Pneumonia, with the doctor's full consent.

I think the I and you who then took over Rather forgot the part we used to play; We wrote and saw each other often enough And sent each other copies of new poems, But there was a constraint in all our dealings, A doubt, unformulated, but quite heavy And not too well disguised. Something we guessed Arising from the War, and yet the War Was a forbidden ground of conversation. Now why, can you say why, short of accepting My substitution view? Then yesterday, After five years of this relationship, I found a relic of the second Richard, A pack-valise marked with his name and rank ... And a sunset started, most unlike the other, A pink-and-black depressing sort of show Influenced by the Glasgow School of Art. It sent me off on a long train of thought And I began to feel badly confused, Being accustomed to this newer self; I wondered whether you could reassure me. Now I have asked you, do you see my point? What I'm asking really isn't 'Who am I?' Or 'Who are you?' (you see my difficulty?) But a stage before that, 'How am I to put The question that I'm asking you to answer?'

Author Graves, Robert (1895-1985)
Title A Letter From Wales
Item Date (1995, 1997, 1999)
Repository name ProQuest
Copyright The Robert Graves Copyright Trust
Digital repository The First World War Poetry Digital Archive
Reference URL http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/collections/item/3422