Oct. 29, 1954
Your kind, exhilarating letter was most welcome.
I shall try to answer your question about The Great Feud as fully as I can, if you will forgive the discursiveness since I am just jotting down the impressions as they occur to me.
It is quite true that strength and courage and heroic qualities generally, like rescue attempts with sacrificial effort, have always made the deepest impression on me. Occasionally it would seem that strength and courage are being displayed for their own sake, but I think such is comparatively rare. The Cachalot might here be taken for an example and the cat in The Witches' Brew though the latter was for me a matter of straight fun or a fantasia to let off steam.
But certainly the launching of the Roosevelt boats from the blocks to rescue the British sailors was an effort of will, courage and skill whose absolute purpose was benign. Similarly, the episodes which remain in my memory concerning the Titanic are those dealing with Ida Straus, the boy of ten, the Engineers in the hold, the Band and so forth. Brébeuf stood for heroic faith, however much a Protestant might disagree with the creed.
My own profession of faith was expressed in The Truant, a comparatively late poem (which, by the way, Norrie Frye considers the best thing I have done). It is an indictment of absolute power without recognition of moral ends. It was written at the height of the Nazi regime. You were right in your guess reference to [it] in your letter.
Now for The Great Feud.
This of course was written after the First World War and before the Second. I have called it a Dream though it might appropriately be termed a nightmare. What might happen in a Second war or a Third, though naturally the A-Bomb and the Hydrogen type were not forming their terrible mushrooms. It is an Armageddon between the inhabitants of the land and those of the sea. It is an attempt to give a picture of some stage in the evolutionary struggle for existence, of how near to extinction a race might come if the instinct of aggression were given absolute rein. I put it away back millions of years before the appearance of man upon the earth. The scene is in Australasia on a 300-mile coast line joining Australia and Malay, one of the most fertile regions of the world and the great nursery for life on land and sea. The fish are represented as half-blindly and dumbly conscious of hostility on the part of the earth. In the first place they have lost large numbers through the lure of emigration to unknown regions. Many have adventured on the muddy flats to develop lungs and flippers and feet and have been destroyed. Many have been attacked on the shoreline by beasts of prey; many have been seized by birds and they have become possessed by a desire for revenge, to get back at a foe which, in the natural order of things, is out of reach. The main idea of the Feud crystallizes around a boundary question. Both sides claim possession of the shoreline and some justification is given by the ambiguous nature of the shoreline through the flow and recession of the tides. 'This is mine,' says the sea. 'Some of my nationals are here and have occupied territory.' 'No,' says the land, 'we were here first.' Patriotic feelings are appealed to with equal and fiery insistence. Life for life exacted.
But here is the practical problem. As the land animals have to be united for the conflict against the fish, the carnivores have to refrain from eating flesh until the time came for the attack upon the marines. This meant that the land carnivores had to become vegetarians in that supreme interval covered by the entente cordiale. I had no trouble with the herbivores naturally, for plants, grasses and herbs were ready at hand, but the carnivores had somewhat hard going on rice and celery and rhododendrons, etc. Still, they agreed to try it out and there wasn't anything wrong in making carnivores vegetarians for a short while because it had the effect of increasing their rage and hunger when the hour came for their onslaught on the fish. It was an orthodox point of grand strategy, and it gave me a chance of injecting a chuckle of humour into the poem which might have been too ghastly and grim without it.
The volcano Jurania is the ironic Spirit brooding over the whole scene and preparing us for the general catastrophe.
Now I wanted two individual protagonists. I asked myself and biologists What would be one of the oldest forms of life possessing great strength but little intellect and the answer was the dinosaur; so I selected Tyrannosaurus Rex. With his pin-point brain, he could lay around him magnificently and his low primitive intelligence wouldn't discern which were his allies, which his foes, so he attacks both. I had in mind, perhaps feebly, the idea of human allies changing sides over a period.
Then what was the highest point reached at that time in evolution? Obviously, the anthropoid ape. You ask me which was the hero, which the villain? I really didn't have in mind a villian-hero composition. There might be elements of both in Rex and the ape. The former starts the panic, the latter controls it and directs the organized beasts. Intelligence in the ape could not prevent belligerency and destruction. A gas-chamber today is the result of an unusual intelligence. As you say, cunning and skill and hate couldn't be more deadly than a primitive beast's rush on its prey. And certainly torture is a human product.
I tried to portray both Rex and the ape sympathetically at the conclusion. Suicide for the former and frustration accompanied his exit and pity could be evoked for him.
But why should the ape be allowed survival. A logical point. The Darwinian hypothesis in mind, where would we be if she died? Collin deals with that. But she struggles back, horrified at what had taken place. What happened to her after she returned to her brood? Well, that's another story and I had inflicted enough horror on my readers as it was.
John Sutherland got one thing from the poem, another writer might get something different. For me it was an allegory of war in its final or near-final stage. John did something which was of deep concern to me in that he brought out the studies from my philosophical course where we were imbued with Freud, James, Wundt and theories of the subconscious. One never knows in any expression what may come up from the well-springs. This can be over done, of course, and several times after I read his analysis, I remarked to myself 'Did I have that in mind when I wrote?' 'Perhaps not explicitly,' I thought. Still it can't be brushed aside completely.
But to come back to your point. Strength for its own sake has not been uppermost in my mind that is to say, mere glorification of power. Concentration camps may come from it, as the world knows.
I hope, Des, that I have done something to answer your questions. Forgive handwriting as I am notoriously illegible.
A personal point again! On Wednesday night I go to New York for a week to see my daughter Claire who is in Hospital for spinal treatment. The cure may mean almost a year in a complete cast. It's the result of polio. Vi and I take turns visiting her.
My kindest regards to yourself & Mary.