The Guardian featured an interesting piece on the (forgotten) poet and critic Edward ThomasWikipedia, who was friends with the young Robert Frost, during Frost's England years, before he made his name as a poet.
The piece is really worth reading in its entirety. It mentions an incident, an unpleasant encounter with an ornery gamekeeper in the winter of 1914, that, combined with Thomas's anxieties and the perceived opprobrium from Frost in Thomas's reading of "The Road Not Taken", eventually (after much agonizing) drove Thomas to enlist, at the ripe age of 37, and go off to France with the British army, only to get killed shortly thereafter, in early 1917.
Ironically, as Wikipedia tells us:
He was killed in action soon after he arrived in France at Arras on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917. Although he survived the actual battle, he was killed by the concussive blast wave of one of the last shells fired as he stood to light his pipe.
The same week I was reading the guardian piece, I had been reading Saki'sWikipedia Chronicles of Clovis, which the late Christopher Hitchens had recommended to me through The Atlantic back in 2008.
Saki is everything Hitchens promised, and more. I can't recommend him enough. His style is brief and focused, his imagination wild and ingenious, and his disposition satirical but never cynical. If one must compare, he most closely resembles P.G. Wodehouse, perhaps, but with a mean streak and many more animals thrown in. Go read his works, they are all in the public domain and readily available on Project Gutenberg and Wikisource.
The public library Complete Stories I had been reading, though, had a bonus: a 90-page biography of Saki written by his sister Ethel. It is a rare jewel: an unsentimental, concise, and uninterpretative biography with excellent access to the facts. Through Ethel's account of their stifling childhood and generous verbatim quotations from Saki's letters, we get to form our own opinions about the man and his art, without having to accept or resist the biographer's interpretation. Even if you do read the public domain e-texts of Saki's works, do try to get your paws on the biography (I doubt it was ever published separately), as it is indispensable to understand Saki's end:
Yes, the scarlet thread linking Saki and Thomas is their senseless death in the killing fields of France. Saki, too, voluntarily enlisted to His Majesty's armed forces, at the even riper age of 43, despite being officially over-age. He refused an officer's commission and enlisted as an ordinary Royal Fusilier.
Somehow, despite the enormous loss to mankind of this unique and wonderful voice and talent, one is less sorry for Saki than for poor confused Thomas, for it is clear that Saki had the time of his life in the trenches, both during training in old blighty and in deployment on the continent: His letters from the front to Ethel are ecstatic, full of boyish joy and good cheer, and it is clear the man is at last living a lifelong dream.
The biography helps understand the background for this: Saki's lonely childhood and loveless upbringing, the lack of peers and friends throughout that childhood, and the physical confinement on the grounds of the country estate he grew up in, all contributed to his lifelong thirst for high adventure, derring-do, and the wilder regions of the globe. This sheds light on some of his writing choices, such as the contrafactual ("alternative history") novel When William Came, describing an England conquered by Kaiser Wilhelm II, or his tribute to Gibbon, The Rise of the Russian Empire.
The scarlet thread does not let up: eye-witnesses report that Saki's last words, crouching in a shell-crater, before he was hit by a German sniper, were "put out that bloody cigarette!"