Action into Words
The Great War and modern poetry.
Mar 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 27 • By EDWARD SHORT
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.