Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Edward Owen Rutter and The Song of Tiadatha

By David F. Beer

Owen Rutter
If the English historian, novelist, and travel writer Edward Owen Rutter is remembered at all today it's probably in connection with his delightful long poem The Song of Tiadatha, which recounts the adventures of a fictional young subaltern during WWI both on the Western and Macedonian Fronts. The journey parallels the war experiences of Rutter himself who served as an officer in the Wiltshire Regiment in the B.S.F (British Salonika Force).

The Song of Tiadatha ("Tired Arthur") has been described as "one of the masterpieces of Great War verse." At some 140 pages it can also be considered one of the few epics, along with David Jones's In Parenthesis, to come out of the war. Particularly interesting is that Rutter chose an unusual verse form (technically known as trochaic tetrameter) to tell his story of Tired Arthur. This is the same poetic meter Longfellow used in his memorable telling of American Indian legends in his Song of Hiawatha. Rutter's poem is not, however—as is often claimed—a parody of Longfellow's work.

The first section of the poem, titled "The Joining of Tiadatha," introduces us to Tiadatha as a rather self-indulgent and privileged young man, (a "filbert" or "nut" as yet un-cracked) but naively willing to do his bit:

Should you question, should you ask me
Whence this song of Tiadatha?
Who on earth was Tiadatha?
I should answer, I should tell you
He was what we call a filbert,
Youth of two and twenty summers.
You could see him any morning
In July of 1914,
Strolling slowly down St James's
From his comfy flat in Duke Street.
. . . . . . . . . . .
Then came war, and Tiadatha
Read his papers every morning,
Read the posters on the hoardings,
Read "Your King and Country want you."
"I must go," said Tiadatha…

And off he goes, gazetted to a temporary commission in the 14th Royal Dudshires courtesy of "a great-aunt, Who knew someone in the Service." We follow him through training, then to France, and on to the Salonika Front where in spite of himself he gradually becomes a soldier, even a hero, finding himself in various adventures and actions. Tiadatha's initial training is a bit hard on him, however:

Had you asked my Tiadatha
If he loved those days of training,
Loved the sloping arms by numbers,
Loved the musketry and marching,
And the press-ups and the shouting,
He would just have smiled and told you
That, until he joined the Army,
He had not the least conception
Life could be so damned unpleasant.
But it made him much less nut-like,
Made him straighter-backed and broader,
Clear of eye, with muscles on him
Like a strong man in a circus.

With many an entertaining simile such as the last line above, we follow Tiadatha in his adventures on his long journey to Salonika (which we must pronounce as Sal-on-i-ka in the poem) and to the routine he has to endure there:

All day long obliging people
Found them jobs to keep them going,
Guards, fatigues and working parties,
Roads to make and hills to dig on.
All the livelong day the Dudshires
Spent in digging up the Balkans.

British Soldiers Digging a Trench in Macedonia

Yet he's also able to occasionally sample some of the more dubious treats readily available to a British soldier in the Middle East—with the author's assurance that of course our hero would do no such things once back in England. Then we see him reach the Doiran Front and build his dugout, and we soon share his brave panic as he helps out at the Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917. He serves admirably at the front also, leading raids and attacks with some success but of course with the usual outcome:

Had you been there when the dawn broke,
Had you looked from out the trenches,
You'd have seen that Serbian hillside,
Seen the aftermath of battle.
Seen the scattered picks and shovels,
Seen the scraps of stray equipment,
Here and there a lonely rifle,
Or a Lewis gun all twisted.
Seen the little heaps of khaki
Lying huddled on the hillside,
Huddled by the Bulgar trenches
Very still and very silent,
Nothing stirring, nothing moving,
Save a very gallant doctor
And his band of stretcher bearers
Working fearless in the open,
Giving water to the dying,
Bringing in those broken soldiers.
You'd have seen the sunlight streaming,
And perhaps you would have wondered
How the sun could still be shining,
How the birds could still be singing,
While so many British soldiers
Lay so still upon the hillside.

Wounded in this battle, Tiadatha spends some time in hospital, and before long is on his circuitous way back to England on leave. Rutter concludes his epic with a farewell to his hero and a hopeful recognition of possibly the sole thing the war has achieved:

So I leave him and salute him
Back in his beloved London,
Knowing that the war has one thing
(If no others) to its credit –
It has made a nut a soldier,
Made a silk purse from a sow's ear,
Made a man of Tiadatha
And made men of hundreds like him.
And the world has cause to thank us
For that band of so-called filberts,
For those products of St. James's,
Light of heart and much enduring,
Straight and debonair and dauntless,
Grousing at their small discomforts,
Smiling in the face of danger.
Who have faced their great adventure,
Crossed through No Man's Land to meet it,
Lightly as they'd cross St. James's.
Eyes and heart still full of laughter,
Till the world had cause to wonder,
Till the world had cause to thank us
For the likes of Tiadatha.

British Camp on the Salonika Front

I read The Song of Tiadatha for the first time a few years ago. It took about two hours and rarely has time passed so quickly. Moreover, I was sorry when the tale ended. I wanted more! I wanted to see Tiadatha back in the war after his leave and see how things turned out for him. Apparently I wasn't the only one to feel this way because after the war Owen Rutter continued his saga with The Travels of Tiadatha, published in 1922. In this second longish poem Tiadatha returns from the war and goes through the depression and let-down so many found after the Armistice. To remedy this, our hero takes a journey to Borneo, echoing some of Owen Rutter's own globe-trotting.

Owen Rutter had served in the British North Borneo Civil Service from 1910 to 1915 before returning to England to join the army. After the war he traveled around the globe, making extended stops in Borneo, Hong Kong, Taiwan (then known as Formosa), Japan, Canada, and the United States, among other places. His wife went with him and took many of the photographs for his travel books. He also wrote a novel. He became a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and of the Royal Anthropological Institute. During World War II Major Rutter used his talents by writing booklets for the Ministry of Information on the British war effort. He died at the age of 56.

Some of Rutter's books are still available, including his Tiadatha epics. Should you prefer to listen rather than read, you can find these poems recited live in a delightful northern English accent through a medium that would have amazed both Tired Arthur and his creator:

1 comment:

  1. Definitely one of the great WW1 poems because it covers the history of one of the priveleged young men who joined up and were killed or wounded leading thir men to a very costly victory.