Action into Words
The Great War and modern poetry.
Mar 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 27 • By EDWARD SHORT
In 1755, in the preface to A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson declared that “the chief glory of every people arises from its authors.” Barely 160 years later, when England entered the First World War, the very notion of glory began to take a beating from which it has never recovered. Wilfred Owen was perhaps its most savage critic:
In the trenches, Owen fought alongside the Manchester Regiment, with whom he saw ghastly action. As Tim Kendall, the superb editor of this anthology, points out, “In March , Owen fell in the dark into a ruined cellar, suffering severe concussion; the following month, several days after experiencing the ‘extraordinary exultation’ of going over the top, he was blown into the air by a shell and landed amid the exploded remains of a fellow officer whose corpse had been disinterred by the blast.”
In such horrifying circumstances, it is only natural that Owen should have turned against la gloire de la guerre. And yet, by recording so meticulously and so faithfully the ingloriousness of war, Owen actually bore out Johnson’s contention; for without Owen’s poetry, and that of the other poets collected here, we should never know the true human cost of the war. In this respect, we owe these admirable poets a special debt: They mobilized their ancient art to show how this most unmerciful of wars was an assault not only on life and limb, but on the very sacredness of humanity. Their theme was the betrayal of man’s true glory.
Now that we have lived to see these assaults ramify in our culture, we can recognize in the trenches rehearsals of the dehumanization that defines so much of our own society. Yet the poets of the First World War counterattacked this dehumanization by celebrating the human, often with heartbreaking tenderness. May Wedderburn Cannan, an Englishwoman who spent the war in a canteen in Rouen, exemplifies this in her lovely lyric “After the War.”
That this counteroffensive was conducted in poetic forms that had celebrated the human for centuries made it all the more arresting. About Ivor Gurney’s sonnet “Pain,” for example, the ghosts of Sidney and Shakespeare hover as a kind of ironic chorus, though the import of the poem could not be more laceratingly modern.
Gurney arrived with the Gloucesters in France in May 1916, two months before the cataclysmic Battle of the Somme. Previously, he had been enrolled at the Royal College of Music under Charles Stanford, who, although charged with teaching Arthur Bliss, Gustav Holst, John Ireland, and Vaughan Williams, thought Gurney the most talented of his pupils, despite being scarcely “teachable.” The music of his verse has a headlong, colloquial urgency:
Gurney also recognized that the Tennysonian music that had dominated the verse of the Georgian poets before the war could not be simply kitted out for service in the trenches: It would need to be replaced with something altogether different to reflect the new dissonant reality. So, in one of his poems about the false euphoria before the Marne, he writes:
This anthology, although dedicated to Jon Stallworthy, who edited the Penguin book of World War I poetry, is in many ways a welcome departure from previous collections. Kendall includes introductions to each of the 27 poets; he adds selections from several unjustly neglected poets; and he appreciates that the war was not simply an exercise in senseless carnage. For all of its ravage, it was a war of liberation: Neither the Belgians nor the French nor the British were willing to live under Kaiser Wilhelm’s jackboot; each fought to protect their respective sovereignty.
Kendall illustrates this by quoting one of the lesser-known poets of the war, Mary Borden, an American heiress from Chicago, who worked as a nurse in the French Red Cross. Recalling the poilus among whom so much of her life-saving work was carried out, she observed, “I see them still, marching up the long roads of France in their clumsy boots and their heavy grey-blue coats that were too big for them; dogged, patient, steady men, plodding to death in defense of their land. I shall never forget them.” At the same time, Kendall includes lines from Thomas Hardy that complicate this or any other casus belli: The Sinister Spirit sneered: ‘It had to be!’ / And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, ‘Why?’
In his excellent Modern English War Poetry (2006), which should be read in conjunction with his anthology, Kendall stresses the ambivalence of the war poets. Contrary to received opinion, they were not simply antiwar. They were poets rather than polemicists, and their poetry has to be read with the same care that one would read any other poetry. As Kendall writes:
Then, again, Kendall understands what often lay behind the formal aesthetics of war poetry. By including such popular trench songs as “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag” and “Oh! It’s a Lovely War” he shows how their often-jaunty defiance of war and war’s despair influenced many of the poets in this collection, Edgell Rickword perhaps most strikingly.
The youngest of the war poets, Rickword crossed the Irish Sea to join the newly formed Berkshires in Dublin in 1918. For carrying out a highly dangerous reconnaissance mission, he received the Military Cross, and he later almost died after succumbing to a bad case of septicaemia, which cost him his left eye. Although he would publish books of verse and contribute critical reviews to journals after the war, he spent most of his long life (he died in 1982) touting the benefits of Bolshevism. Robert Graves might have had Rickword in mind when, in a powerful piece called “Recalling War,” he sought to make sense of his own harrowing experiences in the trenches.
In Goodbye to All That (1929), his memoir of the war, Graves offended his friends Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden by turning his wartime experiences into the knockabout comedy of the music halls. In a typical passage, Graves described how a platoon commander “whistled the advance,” but none of his men seemed to notice.
If Graves chose to satirize the conduct of the war, he was never unreceptive to its unexpected blessings.
Reading this, or David Jones’s moving In Parenthesis, in which he speaks of how No one sings: Lully lully / for the mate whose blood runs down, one is not so quick to dismiss lines from Laurence Binyon, a Red Cross volunteer who, before and after the war, was keeper of the prints and drawings at the British Museum and an expert on British, Japanese, and Persian art.
Edward Short is the author of Newman and His Family.