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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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.

And we recall the merry ways of guns—

Nibbling the walls of factory and church

Like a child, piecrust; felling groves of trees

Like a child, dandelions with a switch.

Machine-guns rattle toy-like from a hill,

Down in a row the brave tin-soldiers fall:

A sight to be recalled in elder days

When learnedly the future we devote

To yet more boastful visions of despair.

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.  

He jumped up from his shell-hole, waved, and signaled “Forward!”

Nobody stirred.

He shouted: “You bloody cowards, are you leaving me to go on alone?”

His platoon-sergeant, groaning with a broken shoulder, gasped, “Not cowards, sir. Willing enough. But they’re all f—ing dead.” 

If Graves chose to satirize the conduct of the war, he was never unreceptive to its unexpected blessings.

And have we done with War at last?

Well, we’ve been lucky devils both,

And there’s no need of pledge or oath

To bind our lovely friendship fast,

By firmer stuff

Close bound enough,

 

By wire and wood and stake we’re bound,

By Fricourt and by Festubert,

By whipping rain, by the sun’s glare,

By all the misery and loud sound,

By a Spring day,

By Picard clay.

 

Show me the two so closely bound

As we, by the wet bond of blood,

By friendship blossoming from the mud,

By Death: we faced him, and we found

Beauty in Death,

In dead men, breath. 

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.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal

Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.

There is music in the midst of desolation

And a glory that shines upon our tears.

Edward Short is the author of Newman and His Family.