The Magazine

Action into Words

The Great War and modern poetry.

Mar 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 27 • By EDWARD SHORT
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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:

O, but the racked clear tired strained frames we had!

Tumbling in the new billet on to straw bed,

Dead asleep .  .  .

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:

High over London

Victory floats

And high, high, high,

Harsh bugle notes

Rend and embronze the air.

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: 

The truths told by war poets continue to disconcert, not least because they encompass what Wilfred Owen called the “exultation” of war as well as the futility, the imaginative opportunities as well as the senseless horrors. War poets cannot wholly regret even the most appalling experiences, as they transform violence, death, atrocity, into the pleasing formal aesthetics of art. Poetry, we never cease to be told, makes nothing happen; but war makes poetry happen.   

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.  

I knew a man, he was my chum,

but he grew darker day by day,

and would not brush the flies away,

nor blanch however fierce the hum

of passing shells; I used to read,

to rouse him, random things from Donne—

 

like ‘Get thee with child a mandrake root.’

But you can tell he was far gone,

for he lay gaping, mackerel-eyed,

and stiff and senseless as a post

even when that old poet cried

‘I long to talk with some old lover’s ghost.’