The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry

BOOK: The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry
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THE PENGUIN BOOK OF FIRST WORLD WAR POETRY

GEORGE WALTER
was educated at the Universities of Leeds and Birmingham, and is currently Senior Lecturer in English at the university of Sussex. He has published widely on the literature of the First World War, including critical editions of Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen and Ivor Gurney. He is currently working on a critical study of Ivor Gurney and, in the longer term, critical study of First World War poetry.

The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry

EDITED BY GEORGE WALTER

PENGUIN BOOKS

PENGUIN BOOKS

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London
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This collection first published by Penguin Books as
In Flanders Fields: Poetry of the First World War
2004 Published under the current title with an updated Introduction in Penguin Classics 2006

1

Selection and editorial matter copyright © George Walter, 2004, 2006

All rights reserved

The moral right of the editor has been asserted

Pages 366–8 constitute an extension to this copyright page

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

ISBN
-13: 978–0–141–18190–5

ISBN
-10: 0–141–18190–7

In Memory of Private William Job Packer The Royal West Kent Regiment 1889–1916

Introduction

Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, Edmund Gosse tried to predict the impact that the First World War would have on contemporary literature. That the war would be good for Britain wasn't in doubt: according to Gosse, it was ‘the sovereign disinfectant' that would purge those habits of self-indulgence and luxuriousness which had so corrupted the nation during peacetime. But he was also aware that this purification would come at a price. Looking across the English Channel, he saw that literature had been ‘trodden into the mud by the jack-boot of the Prussian' and feared a similar catastrophe would occur in Britain, even if actual invasion was averted. With the public's attention firmly fixed on the war and its progress, those ‘branches of literature which are most delicate, admirable and original' were already being dangerously neglected, and this woeful state of affairs would surely continue until peace was once more restored. Whilst the damage might not be permanent, the immediate future looked bleak: ‘the book', he concluded, ‘which does not deal directly and crudely with the complexities of warfare and the various branches of strategy will, from Christmas onwards, not be published at all'.
1

In fact the opposite turned out to be true, as Gosse would later ruefully admit.
2
Far from damaging literary production in Britain, the war actually acted as a stimulus to the nation's writers, who immediately rushed to
satisfy the public's voracious appetite for imaginative treatments of contemporary events. The first significant war-inspired drama, J. M. Barrie's
Der Tag
, opened at the London Coliseum in December 1914, whilst war novels began to appear at the start of 1915 and had become so numerous by the end of the year that newspapers and magazines were reduced to reviewing them in batches. Much of this material bears the mark of having been written in a hurry – Virginia Woolf described
Der Tag
as ‘sheer balderdash of the thinnest kind' in her diary – and little of it was of lasting value, yet it paved the way for the kinds of more serious and enduring writing that would appear in the latter years of the war.
3

Nowhere is this explosion of creativity more evident than in the hundreds of thousands of poems written and published during the First World War. Within weeks of the German invasion of Belgium,
The Times
was being inundated by ‘as many as a hundred metrical essays in a single day',
4
whilst the
Daily Mail
could report in June 1915 that more poetry had ‘found its way into print in the last eleven months than in the eleven preceding years'.
5
Some of this work, of course, was the product of established poets responding to the crisis in the way they knew best, but most came from ordinary people finding their muse for the first time – not quite the ‘literature' that Gosse had in mind, perhaps, but highly popular nevertheless – and many of these were serving in the armed forces. Indeed, so prolific were these ‘Soldier-Poets' or ‘Trench Poets' that the
Westminster Gazette
was forced to declare a moratorium on their contributions;
6
by early
1916, even a trench newspaper like
The Wipers Times
was so overwhelmed by the ‘hurricane of poetry' from its readers that it was asking them rather forcibly to ‘break into prose' instead.
7

‘The Poets are Waiting'
8

Seeking an explanation for this phenomenon, most contemporary critics were content to agree with Arthur Clutton Brock's assertion that it was wholly inevitable that ‘the greatest war of all time should call out the poets'.
9
There's clearly something in this statement: within hours of Britain's declaration of war, the impending conflict was already being described in terms of superlatives – it was to be ‘the war that will end war', in H. G. Wells's memorable phrase
10
– and as it progressed it became clear that it was a war which was unlike any other ever seen before. Earlier wars had been geographically remote and fought by small professional armies. Here, however, was an armed struggle right on Britain's doorstep which, by the time the Armistice was signed, had resulted in almost eight million ordinary men and women either being conscripted or volunteering for military-related service. Nor were those who didn't serve exempt from the experience of the war: they waited for news of absent family members and friends from the Front; they read of German air-raids on the mainland of Britain and wondered if they would be next; they learned to live under the suffocating restrictions of the Defence of the Realm Act – which amongst its other limitations forbade loitering under railway bridges, speaking
on the telephone in a foreign language and whistling for a taxi after ten o'clock at night – and, by the last year of the war, learned to deal with the novelty of food rationing.
11
The First World War was, in a very real sense, the first total war: total in that no-one who lived through it could remain untouched by it.

But where did Clutton Brock's poets come from? Like most of his fellow-commentators, he failed to address the question of what the historical and cultural circumstances were which led to Britain having such a reserve of untapped poetical potential throughout the four years of the war. Only Edmund Gosse seems to have some inkling: he wrote approvingly of Britain sending out ‘for our national defence in this war a soldiery far more widely and deeply educated than has ever been the case before'.
12
For ‘soldiery' read ‘general population'. Thanks to a series of Victorian and Edwardian educational reforms, even those who left school before the statutory leaving age of fourteen were equipped with a level of basic literacy previously unseen in Britain. This literacy was primarily engendered through an engagement with literature with a capital ‘L', which in this case meant poetry of a particular kind: what Elizabeth A. Marsland calls ‘the nation's treasury of patriotic and heroic poems'.
13
Not only did such an education generate a profound sense of nationhood amongst schoolchildren by exposing them to the kinds of poets and poems which emphasized their sense of national identity in the clearest possible terms, but it also created a huge potential readership for war poetry. As Marsland notes, the existence of a greatly expanded reading public in the
years before the war resulted in a boom in both the demand for and the production of printed material during the war years, in particular in the kind of newspapers and magazines which provided so important an outlet for the majority of war poets.

In an age when media was almost wholly print-based – cinema was relatively in its infancy then – poetry was, for most of Edwardian society, a part of everyday life. Contemporary poets such as Sir Alfred Austin, Rudyard Kipling and Henry Newbolt were read not merely for entertainment, but also for the lessons they imparted; as C. K. Stead has noted, the definition of a major poet in this period was ‘a man who expressed a sound philosophy in verse'.
14
If any reader tired of the articulation of Britain's sense of its national and imperial identity which these writers supplied – and few seemed to have done so for long – then A. E. Housman's particularly English lyricism was on hand to satisfy other, more romantic longings. A commitment to accessibility and an emphasis on rhythm and rhyme were crucial elements in these poets' work, which meant that it was both immensely popular with ordinary readers and, more crucially, offered a ready-made poetic model for the even the least talented of versifiers when war broke out.

For the more literary minded, the emergence of the Imagist and Georgian movements in the years immediately prior to the outbreak of war offered more contemporary and more stimulating models of poetic expression. Of the two movements, Imagism was the more calculated, seeking as it did to tap into the wave of self-conscious
modernity that was sweeping Europe in the pre-war period, and also the more obviously doctrinaire: poets, it agued, should employ ‘the
exact
word, not the nearly-exact', should ‘render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities', should use the ‘language of common speech' and should be allowed ‘absolute freedom in the choice of subject'.
15
The Georgian movement, on the other hand was less formal and less dogmatic; it was centred around a series of bestselling anthologies which brought together a number of younger poets committed to colloquialism, simplicity and realism on the grounds that they represented ‘a new strength and beauty' in English poetry.
16
Both, however, were seen as highly radical in their own way, the Georgians for ‘the atmosphere of empirical rebellion' which permeated their work and the Imagists for the ‘anarchy' which they threatened to inflict upon the noble art of poetry,
17
and the influence of both, to a greater or lesser degree, can be traced in much of the poetry written by the better-educated during the war.

‘As swimmers into cleanness leaping'
18

‘No other class of poetry vanishes so rapidly, has so little chosen from it for posterity.' The war was barely six months old when Edward Thomas delivered this terse and gloomy verdict on the longevity of war poetry. He was basing his judgement on the fact that earlier wars had produced only a handful of worthwhile poems; the sheer ineptness of the poetic response to recent events – characterized by him as being either ‘bombastic, hypocritical
or senseless' – seemed to suggest that this war would, sadly, be no different. Most of the poetry published so far merely seemed to express in the crudest possible terms the idea that the war was a sacred crusade against German wickedness and even ‘the work of true poets' had proved a disappointment: although what these more elderly writers had produced so far was equal to anything they had fashioned in peacetime, it still seemed to Thomas that they had failed to do justice to the circumstances.
19

In one sense, his pessimism was well-founded. Had the war been over by Christmas, as many believed it would, its poetic legacy would have indeed echoed those of earlier wars. But the appearance of Rupert Brooke's so-called ‘War Sonnets' in early 1915 suggested that some younger poets, at least, were able to rise to the challenge of the war.
20
Genuinely admired by ordinary readers, they were also critically acclaimed:

It is impossible to shred up this beauty for the purpose of criticism. These sonnets are personal…and yet the very blood and youth of England seem to find expression in them. They speak not for one heart only, but for all to whom her call has come in the hour of need and found instantly ready.
21

A significant boost to their popularity came on Easter Sunday 1915, when the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral chose ‘The Soldier' as the text for his sermon, arguing that ‘the enthusiam of a pure and elevated patriotism has never found a nobler expression' and that, in time, Brooke ‘would take rank with our great poets'. Brooke, on active
service in the Aegean at the time, responded typically to this praise by commenting that he was sorry that the Dean had compared him unfavourably with the prophet Isaiah.
22

Three weeks later, he was dead. Despite dying from septicaemia and not from an enemy bullet, the extravagance of the obituaries which greeted his death – Winston Churchill described him as ‘all that one could wish England's noblest sons to be' – coupled with the considerable popularity of his sonnets ensured that he rapidly became mythologized as Britain's first poetic martyr of the war. Tributes in verse and prose, all stressing the nobility of his sacrifice, poured into newspapers and magazines, and plans were immediately put into effect to create a permanent memorial to ‘such a gallant and joyous type of the poet-soldier',
23
perhaps the most bizarre being a proposal to fix the church clock at Grantchester permanently at ten to three in his honour.
24
1914 and Other Poems
, a posthumous collection of his poems containing the famous sonnets, was rushed through the press and, when it appeared six weeks after his death, it sold out almost immediately; it went through three impressions that same week and was, on average, reprinted every eight weeks throughout the war years.
25
Three years earlier, Brooke's poetry had been described as ‘disgusting' and he himself as being full of ‘swagger and brutality'; now he was being regarded as ‘the only English poet of any consideration who has given his life in his country's wars'.
26

This rapid mythologizing of Brooke had a number of important consequences. On the one hand, it placed his poetry beyond criticism and reduced the analysis of his
work to a succession of well-meant but wholly uncritical platitudes about ‘that precious object, the mind of Rupert Brooke' and the way in which it was ‘sacrificed to our national necessity'.
27
On the other, it inspired a vast amount of poetry which made no secret of its debt to him, borrowing the language of his sonnets to express the heartfelt conviction that the war had awakened the nation from its pre-war decadence and given it a heavensent opportunity to purge its peacetime sins – ‘Gosse versified', in Samuel Hynes's memorable phrase.
28
Most importantly, it changed the way in which war poetry was read and valued. Previously, the merit or otherwise of a war poem rested solely on whether it expressed the right kind of sentiment; after Brooke's death, however, the fact of whether or not the author had seen active service became equally important. Poems written by young men who had died on the field of battle were deemed particularly worthy, especially if they could be easily fitted into the mould supplied by the Brooke myth – that of the selfless young literary patriot who heeded his country's call, only to die tragically and heroically when his promise seemed about to be fulfilled.

BOOK: The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry
8.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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