Words at War

Front cover of Poetry of the First World War edited by Tim KendallPoetry of the First World War: An Anthology, ed. Tim Kendall (Oxford University Press 2013)

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are famous names today, but both might have died young in the First World War. If so, they would now be long forgotten. Generally speaking, novelists, essayists and scholars take time to mature and need time to create. Poets are different: they can create something of permanent value in a few minutes. This helps explain why nearly half the men chosen for this book did not reach their thirties:

• Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)
• Julian Grenfell (1888-1915)
• Charles Sorley (1895-1915)
• Patrick Shaw Stewart (1888-1917)
• Arthur Graeme West (1891-1917)
• Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918)
• Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

And none of them left substantial bodies of work. Indeed, “except for some schoolboy verse”, Patrick Shaw Stewart is known for only one poem, which “was found written on the back flyleaf of his copy of A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad after his death” (pg. 116). It begins like this:

I saw a man this morning
  Who did not wish to die:
I ask and cannot answer,
  If otherwise wish I.

(From I saw a man this morning)

Housman is here too, with Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries, which Kipling, also here, is said to have called “the finest poem of the First World War” (pg. 14). I don’t agree and I would prefer less Kipling and no Thomas Hardy. That would have left space for something I wish had been included: translations from French and German. The First World War was fought by speakers of Europe’s three major languages and this book makes me realize that I know nothing about war poetry in French and German.

It would be interesting to compare it with the poetry in English. Were traditional forms mingling with modernism in the same way? I assume so. Wilfred Owen looked back to Keats and the assonance of Anglo-Saxon verse:

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced winds that knive us…
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent…
Low, drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient…
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
  But nothing happens. (Exposure)

David Jones (1895-1974) looked forward:

   You can hear the silence of it:
You can hear the rat of no-man’s-land
rut-out intricacies,
weasel-out his patient workings,
scrut, scrut, sscrut,
harrow-out earthly, trowel his cunning paw;
redeem the time of our uncharity, to sap his own amphibi-
ous paradise.
   You can hear his carrying-parties rustle our corruptions
through the night-weeds – contest the choicest morsels in his
tiny conduits, bead-eyed feast on us; by a rule of his nature,
at night-feast on the broken of us. (In Parenthesis)

But is there Gerard Manley Hopkins in that? And in fact In Parenthesis was begun “in 1927 or 1928” and published in 1937. T.S. Eliot called it “a work of genius” (pg. 200). I’d prefer to disagree, but I can’t: you can feel the power in the extract given here. Isaac Rosenberg had a briefer life and left briefer work, but was someone else who could work magic with words:

A worm fed on the heart of Corinth,
Babylon and Rome.
Not Paris raped tall Helen,
But this incestuous worm
Who lured her vivid beauty
To his amorphous sleep.
England! famous as Helen
Is thy betrothal sung.
To him the shadowless,
More amorous than Solomon.

A beautiful poem about an ugly thing: death. A mysterious poem too. And a sardonic one. Rosenberg says much with little and I think he was a much better poet than the more famous Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. They survived the war and wrote more during it, which helps explain their greater fame. But the flawed poetry of Graves was sometimes appropriate to its ugly theme:

To-day I found in Mametz Wood
A certain cure for lust of blood:

Where, propped against a shattered trunk,
  In a great mess of things unclean,
Sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk
  With clothes and face a sodden green,
Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired,
Dribbling black blood from nose and beard.

A poem like that is a cure for romanticism, but that’s part of what makes Wilfred Owen a better and more interesting poet than Graves. Owen’s romanticism wasn’t cured: there’s conflict in his poems about conflict:

I saw his round mouth’s crimson deepen as it fell,
  Like a sun, in his last deep hour;
Watched the magnificent recession of farewell,
  Clouding, half gleam, half glower,
And a last splendour burn the heavens of his cheek.
  And in his eyes
The cold stars lighting, very old and bleak,
  In different skies.

But how good is Owen’s work? He was a Kurt Cobain of his day: good-looking, tormented and dying young. You can’t escape the knowledge of early death when you read the poetry of one or listen to the music of other. That interferes with objective appraisal. But the flaws in Owen’s poetry add to its power, increasing the sense of someone writing against time and struggling for greatness in a bad place. The First World War destroyed a lot of poets and perhaps helped destroy poetry too, raising questions about tradition that some answered with nihilism. As Owen asks in Futility:

Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sun-beams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

Some of the poets here were happy to go to war, but it wasn’t the Homeric adventure anticipated by Patrick Shaw Stewart. He learnt that high explosive is impersonal, bullets kill at great distance and machines don’t need rest. Poetry of the First World War is about a confrontation: between flesh and metal, brains and machinery. It’s an interesting anthology that deserves much more time than I have devoted to it. The notes aren’t intrusive, the biographies are brief but illuminating, and although Tim Kendall is a Professor of English Literature he has let his profession down by writing clear prose and eschewing jargon. He’s also included some “Music-Hall and Trench Songs” and they speak for the ordinary and sometimes illiterate soldier. The First World War may be the most important war in European history and this is a good introduction to some of the words it inspired.

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