Francis St. Vincent Morris: the pilot poet

Paul Dakin
North London, UK (Fall 2017)

 

Francis St. Vincent Morris

I discovered his original notebook and correspondence when sorting my late uncle’s effects. They were given to him by Morris’ sister Ruth. Francis St. Vincent Morris was a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. Three weeks after arriving in France he crashed in a snowstorm and died of his injuries at the age of twenty one.   The tragedy is distinguished from many others in that he is one of the lesser known poets of the First World War. His published work, considered very fine by contemporary reviewers, consists of a single posthumous volume. i

Born on 21 February 1896, ‘Vin’ as he was affectionately known, was the youngest of six. His father was vicar of St Oswald’s Parish Church in Ashbourne, Derbyshire. Morris left Wadham College, Oxford, during his first year to be commissioned into the 3rd Battalion, Sherwood Foresters, his father’s former regiment, on 7 August 1915.

Having composed poetry from childhood, Morris told his mother of the opportunities to write during military training:

“I hope you will like the new ones:  I wrote them all at various odd moments when I was stuck in trenches or Orderly officer, or on other equally entertaining duties!” ii

Morris naturally reflected on events that touched him personally. This poem was dedicated to a friend killed in action:

Leaves in the Autumn

Wither and die,
And in the meadows
Mould’ring lie;
But from their deadness
Blossoms shall spring,
Sweetest that summer
Days can bring.

Lives that were dear to us
Pass, and are gone;
Lives that were lovely
To look upon:
But from their sweetness
There shall arise
The sweetest flowers Paradise.

Much of his poetry, including unpublished work from the notebook, contains poignant imagery alluding to the ever-present threat of being parted from friends. Intending to follow his father’s vocation, Morris often expresses the belief in a life beyond. He displays a fascination with nature and atmospheric conditions that would deepen with his later experience of flying:

A sweet wind passed in the forest
And moaned in the shadows above,
And he heard it sigh through the branches,
And it seemed as the voice of Love.

And he went his way for a season,
And came when he deemed it good:
But the trees were felled – and the voices
Had passed from the whispering wood.

Morris, frustrated about waiting for a transfer to the Front, was suddenly offered an unexpected opportunity:

 “….a paper was sent round asking for officers to volunteer for the R.F.C. ….  I gave in my name ….and went in for my medical the other day…. The Major examining did not allow for my slight excitement, and told me that I had no business to have such a fast pulse, and ploughed me on the strength of it…..The Colonel who interviewed me was most satisfied with my qualifications, and only remembered at the very last moment to ask for my medical certificate! So I produced it….and ….he sent me straight to hospital….I was re-examined by a Medical officer and a Major. They gave me a very thorough examination and said that I was perfectly fit; and so the Colonel passed me for the consideration of the R.F.C. Fortunately the fact that I hold a Scouting Certificate and my age were both very much in my favour. They will only take men between 19-28…”iii

Wanting to reassure his parents, Morris wrote:

“….To be frank, I honestly do not believe there is as much danger in the R.A.F. as there is in the Infantry – judging from the opinions of officers from the front: and even if there was, that is a very decisive reason why unmarried officers should volunteer for the work.

I go to Oxford on the 11th to report at a School of Theory – a six weeks’ course, I believe….one has to deal with about thirteen different subjects…” iv

Morris transferred to No 3 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps in the Spring of 1917. His letter was unknowingly prophetic as he refers to the perils of bad weather that would prove to be fatal.

“…I am now on the waiting-list for overseas…. We have had little flying lately, as we have had very bad weather with snow…” v

Morris arrived in France two weeks later, and had two serious accidents:

“My luck has been quite “out” for the last few days. On Thursday I had to land on a strange aerodrome owing to engine trouble….Just as we were the height of the hangars and about 15 yards off then my engine cut clean out. I tried to turn sharply to the right to avoid the shed, but it was too late: we went straight through the side of the shed over the doors, at 50-60 miles per hour….I was in the front seat and escaped absolutely unscathed, and the observer had a skin cut on the top of his head about ½ inch long!….

….I was sent to fetch a new machine, and had another forced-landing in a ploughed field on my way back, four miles from the nearest telephone!” vi

The following day, three weeks after arriving in France, Morris crashed in a blizzard at Vimy Ridge. His plane hit a ruined statue on top of a church tower, coming down onto telegraph poles.  Morris injured his face and fractured both legs, one requiring amputation in the field hospital. His sister remembered the operation lasting three hours, one of fourteen performed each day, often without morphine.

Morris wrote a few days later:

“…. I am not as strong as I might be, and am writing this on my back, as I got a compound fracture of the left leg and the right ankle. In the latter case poison set in, and they have had to dispose of my right foot.

This will, I’m afraid, be the end of any flying…. but it will in no way hinder my future profession, so God has indeed been generous.

I crashed in a snow-storm….I’m far better every day and am really making wonderful recovery….I think any disfigurement of my face will be covered by a moustache!” vii

Morris responded to his mother’s frantic reply:

“… I am now very much better …..The Clearing Station here, is very comfortable….My Flight Commander says that he thinks he has never seen a machine so hopelessly entangled, as in our own crash….I am really quite able physically to write my own letters but it tires me very much and I am not allowed off my back…” viii

His last letter was dictated to an Army Chaplain. He ‘felt weak and tired’ after being transferred to the Base Hospital in Rouen for a second operation. His mother and sisters sat with him while waiting for the anaesthetic, but Morris died before the procedure. He was buried in St Sever Cemetery, Rouen.

The Blackwell volume includes 38 poems, the earliest from 1913. Contemporary reviews were positive and the collection was well received:

“..one marks the classical note in his …verse. He was also an admirer of Rupert Brooke, to whose all too brief a career his life affords a close enough parallel.” ix

“Brooke, Sorley, Freston, and now Morris, will all find places among the valued books of poetry at the outcome of the war….Morris is marked…by a delicate and sensitive style….x

In the prologue, Morris’ school friend LAG Strong believed the poetry represented “a message well worth having”. His critique more candid than those of the reviewers, gently referred to the use of elaborate meters, the presence of clichés, and repetition. He noted that Morris admired Horace, Catallus, and Keats. The notebook Morris gave his mother is annotated with quotations from Latin, Greek, and French.

His style certainly contains more classical and religious allusions than many of his contemporaries, and he writes in a more conventional and sentimental form. Morris also conveys a powerful sense of hope. Not surprisingly, he often included themes of loss and love, with the 22 references to death in the collection softened by a belief in God’s sovereignty and the promise of joyful reunion.

The final poem was written on two pieces of paper found in his pocket. It was considered to be of “a high standard,” xi and had “exquisite clarity” xii.

“The metrical audacity of many….the charm…the sincerity….and the “…the devotional mood of many of these verses indicates that he might have written…in the vein of a Herbert or a Vaughan; what he left is delicate enough, as may be seen from this fragment found in his pocket book after he had been killed.” xiii

Through vast
Realms of air
we passed
On wings all-whitely fair.

Sublime
On speeding wing
we climb
Like an unfettered thing.
Away
Height upon height:
and play
In God’s great Lawns of Light.

And He
Guides us safe home
to see
The Fields He bade us roam.

 

References

  1. FSV Morris, The Poems of Francis St.Vincent Morris, (Oxford: BH Blackwell, 1917).
  2. Letter to his mother from Cleadon dated 25.07.16.
  3. Letter to his mother from 3rd Bn, The Sherwood Foresters, Command School of Sniping, Rugeley Camp dated 19th August 1916.
  4. Letter to his mother from 3 Btn, The Sherwood Foresters. Cleadon, Nr Sunderland.
  5. Letter to his mother from Fort Grange, Gosport dated 10 March 1917.
  6. Letter to his mother from ‘A’ flight No 3 Squadron RFC BE7 dated April 9 1917.
  7. Letter to his mother from 56 Casualty Clearing Station dated ?15 April 1917.
  8. Letter to his mother from 56 Casualty Clearing. BEF dated 19 April 1917.
  9. Globe, 9 February 1918.
  10. The Western Morning News, 15 February 1918.
  11. Athenaeum, May 1918.
  12. Aberdeen Daily Journal, March 1918.
  13. Pioneer, 5 May 1918.

 


 

PAUL DAKINBSc, MBBS, MA, FRCGP, is a retired General Practitioner and postgraduate Trainer from North London.  He has a Master’s degree in Literature and Medicine and is the former Secretary of the Association for Medical Humanities. Paul is a member of the P.G. Wodehouse Society (UK).

 

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