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The last two world wars were unique in our history, not least for the cultural shock inflicted on the whole of our society. Each of them took millions of young men and women away from their families and friends at the most sensitive stage of their lives. It put them into uniform to serve under strict discipline with total strangers in closed communities. It sent them abroad to kill other young men and women hundreds and thousands of miles away in cities, fields and mountains, in deserts and jungles.
Finally, it subjected them to long periods of paralysing boredom, punctuated by sharp bursts of extreme excitement in which the prospect of death was always present.
For most of these men and women the war was the most intense experience they were ever to know. Thousands, who found the pressure almost too much to bear, turned to poetry as the only way of realising-for the first and often the last time in their lives.
So both wars produced a cataract of poetry.
However, the poetry of the Second World War is much different from that of the first. Most of the poets that we know of in the First World War were writing in hope of publication. They were nearly all men, and men with university degrees, largely from public schools; Isaac Rosenberg was one of the few exceptions. The patriotic exaltation, which led them to volunteer, stumbled when they came face to face with trench warfare. For the first time they began to ask how the war came about.
It was the old champion of the ordinary soldier, Rudyard Kipling, who gave them the answer: “If any man question why we died, tell them, because our fathers lied.”
So the poems, plays and novels of the First World War expressed a mood of bitter contempt for the politicians and brasshats, together with a profound pity for their victims. The pacifism they engendered came to dominate the feelings of the next generation. In the middle nineteen thirties, the news of the concentration camps turned the pacifism in to anti-fascism.
So the poetry of the Second World War was far more diverse than that of the First World War. Most of its poets came from ordinary homes and wrote their ordinary poems with no thought of publication. Some of the best were from the dominions such as the South African Uys Krige, the Australian infantry man J.E.Brooks and the New Zealander Les Cleveland. A few of the Scots decided to write in Gaelic, making them even less acceptable to a literary establishment based in London.
For all these reasons the poetry of the second world war made less impact on the peacetime public then that of the first world war. It offered no equivalent to the intense concentration of the horrors of trench warfare and it had no clear message, of hope or despair.
As Dennis MacHarrie wrote in his poem “Luck”:
“”He died who loved to live’, they’ll say,
‘Unselfishly so we might have today!’
Like hell! He fought because he had to fight;
He died that’s all. It was his unlucky night.”
(Dennis MacHarrie was an OBE wing commander RAF, posted 38 bomber squadron, middle east, 1942, as a flight lieutenant, moving to Barce, near Benghazi).
Most moving of all are some of the poems by young women, who describe not only the heartbreak of losing their loved ones, but also the initial panic they felt at being thrown into barracks with other women from totally different backgrounds. Even today, the poems of the First World War are much more widely known then those of the second.
The wealth of poetry from the Second World War forms a unique genre in British and European history. Men and women wrote these poems from all services and ranks, in contrast to the narrow group of the First World War poets. Unlike them, so many leading poets did not return to continue writing and counter the myth that the Second World War produced little of note.
Many poets were leaders of their units undertaking tasks they could have delegated. But it was their war, they believed. It was an age of ideas and ideals, and from the destruction a better world would emerge. In half a century the world has changed, but not in the way the compassionate generation of the Second World War envisaged or intended.
The Bofors AA gun:
“Such marvellous ways to kill a man!
An ‘instrument of precision’, a beauty,
The well-oiled shining marvel of our day
Points an accusing finger at the sky
-But suddenly, traversing, elevating madly,
It plunges into action, more than eager
For the steel blood of these romantic birds
That threaten all the towns and roads.
O, that man’s ingenuity, in this so subtle,
In such harmonious synchronisation of parts,
Should against man be turned and complaisant,
The pheasant-shooter be himself the pheasant!”
(Gavin Ewart, officer RA, North Africa, Italy. Poet and critic living in London)
To help understand the men and women of the war, and above all, answer the question why so many wrote poetry, let us begin with one man, as yet undistinguished, spending his 21st birthday, digging, not in the garden of his London home where he grew up, but with the Australian infantry at Thermopylae, Greece. It was the twenty forth of April 1941. By a strange chance the Aussies where awaiting a German attack on the same ground where Leonidas and his 300 Spartans fought to the last man against the Persians over two millennia before. No placard had commemorated this piece of history, but the man digging, John Brooks, had read of the Greek legend. And there, on his birthday, surveying the Thermopylae pass, John Brookes related the story of the Spartans to a comrade of his -who was unimpressed. So, left to his thoughts, John Brookes interweaved the legend of the past with the present fate of the Aussie infantry, in an epic poem, which takes us through the twenty-four hours from the first alert. Weeks later the poem, all 130 lines, was committed to paper in a Pow camp near Salonika structured and polished it needed no revision. It was written with no thought of a publisher and stayed in a shoebox under the stairs of a Somerset home until forty years later.
“I am determined that this war, with all its powers for the devastation, shall not master my poetry; that is, if I am lucky enough to come through all right, I will not leave a with the strange and extraordinary new conditions of this life, and it will all refine into poetry later on”.
Isaac Rosenberg, letter to Lawrence Binyon, 1914.
In 1936, 20 years after the battle of the Somme, the oxford book of modern verse 1892-1935 was published. It purported to be a collection of the finest poetry in our language produced in modern times. The editor was William Butler Yeats. He decided that the book should contain no poetry of the Great War 1914-1918. In his introduction, Yeats was quite candid about his decision to proscribe Owen, Sassoon, Graves and other war poets. He had distaste for certain poems written during the war:
“In poems that had for a time considerable fame, written in the first person, they made suffering their own. I have rejected these poems for the same reason that made Arnold withdraw his Empedocles on Etna from circulation, passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies; in Greece the tragic chorus danced…
If war was necessary, or necessary in our time and place, it is best to forget it’s suffering as we do the discomforts of fever, remembering our comfort at midnight when our temperature fell”.
With the superior wave of his hand, Yeats dismisses such giants of the 20th century literature as Owen, Graves, Sassoon, Blunden and a host of others who attempted to render the unforgettable experience. Yet, in all charity we mat make some effort to understand why Yeats found war poetry so difficult to accommodate. He was a victim of his own period and limitations of his reading. There has been nothing like the poetry of the Great War. In the present day, the poets he so peevishly and grandly dismissed from his collection are considered to be among the greatest of modern poets, and his theory of poetry, of the appropriateness of particular subjects to poetic treatment and the avoidance of others, now seems affected. Yeats, however, simply could not accept what the poets of the Great War had to offer, his generation was quite unprepared. War had been a subject for poetry, but never like this.
Before 1914, when poets dealt with war it was to render it exotically or historically removed from immediate experience. War, in the hands of Macauley, Tennyson, Arnold, Newbolt and Aytoun had all the conviction of modern television costume drama. There were two outstanding exceptions- Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy. Kipling made a serious attempt to reproduce the voice of the ordinary soldier and to get away from the bardic commentaries on the glories of the nations victories. Hardy wrote honestly and movingly about the Boer war, but most impressive is his epic treatment of the Napoleonic war, the “Dynasts”, which occupied him between 1904-1908. Though set a century in the past, the Dynasts strikes home with almost contemporary insight into the nature of wholesale international military conflict.
On the face of it, the generation, which faced the catastrophe of 1914, was ill equipped poetically to express itself, having no tradition to draw upon, nor worthwhile models to imitate. At first, poets aped anthology pieces or relied on well-established forms, but gradually the really original poets found their voices.
We can now see this for the pernicious nonsense that it is, in the just recognition of Graves, Sassoon, Brooke, Rosenberg, and Owen, and the numerous, possibly lesser, poets who tried to portray the indescribable, and express the unthinkable during the years 1914-1918. Yeats could not have been more mistaken. War is not necessary, but if it comes, then it is the poets duty to male sure we never ” Forget its suffering, as we do the discomfort of fever, remembering our comfort at midnight when our temperature fell”.
One of the most striking facts about the Great War is the astonishing amount of poetry it inspired. Some of the finest English war poetry ever produced was written between 1914-1918. It has become a tradition when assessing English poetry of the First World War to see a clear division in the output of poetry. The claim is that the early poetry, written before the battle of the Somme in 1916, was concerned with the struggle of righteous cause and the chivalric and heroic aspect of military service, stressing the virtue of sacrifice and dwelling on the image of St. George of England versus the dragon of the central powers; and that later poetry represents a sense of disillusionment brought on by involvement in a senseless war of attrition, and by the shattering cost of modern warfare in human terms. Julian Grenfell, Rupert Brooke, Robert Nichols and Charles Sorley are seen as the leading figures of the early war poetry, while Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Edmund Blunden and Isaac Rosenberg represent the second stage of the war. There is plenty of evidence to support this view, but signs of disquiet exist in much of the poetry written in the earliest days of the war.
The work of poets such as Henry Newbolt, Walter de la Mare, and John Freeman accorded with popular patriotic sentiment at the beginning of the war, and John Masefield, with a touch of classic Georgian melancholy, reminded the brave young soldiers what it was they were fighting to preserve:
“The harvest not yet won, the empty bin,
The friendly horses take from the stalls,
The fallow on the hill not yet brought in,
The cracks unplastered in the leaking walls,”
Yet, on of the greatest of the soldier-poets, Isaac Rosenberg, was already writing very uncompromisingly about the conflict. Rosenberg had gone to South Africa in June 1914 for the sake of his health and was enjoying considerable artistic and social success. He loathed the idea of the European conflict. Although successful in Cape Town, he was not warmly received by the Jewish community and, as war fever developed, South Africa seemed less and less attractive. He had hoped to stay on and do a lot of work, returning to Europe with a large portfolio, but alas it was not to be. Removed from Europe by so many miles, distanced from his social contacts in London and his cultural and artistic roots, Rosenberg saw the terrible crisis in Europe with searing clarity. His poem, On Receiving News of the War, written in Cape Town, is one of the first really great poems of the First World War.
“Snow is a strange white word.
No ice or frost
He has asked of bud or bird
For winter’s cost
Yet ice and frost and snow
From earth to sky
This summer land doth know.
No man knows why.
In all men’s heart it is
Some spirit old
Hath turned with maligned kiss
Our lives to mould.
Red fangs have torn His face.
God’s blood is shed.
He mourns from His lone place
His children are dead.
O! Ancient crimson curse!
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.”
Rupert Brooke learned of the outbreak of war while at a music hall in Norfolk. He later elaborated on his feelings about the news of the beginning of the war in his essay An Unusual young Man. The young man in question is on holiday in Cornwall (Brooke changed the location; he himself had been on holiday in Norfolk). When he hears the news he goes out to climb a hill of gorse and sits alone, looking at the sea. His mind is filled with images and a sense of confusion and strain, the word ‘Germany’ bringing a collection of vague thoughts to mind: the pompous middleclass vulgarity of the buildings in Berlin; the wide restfulness of Munich; the taste of beer; innumerable glittering cafes; Wagner’s Der Ring; the swish of evening air on the face as one skies past the pines; nights of drinking, singing and laughter. He then suddenly realized that his thoughts were continually returning to two periods of his life-the days after the death of his mother, and the time of his first deep estrangement from the one he loved.
Brooke resolved to serve in the armed forces and for a time considered getting a commission in the army via the Territorials at Cambridge. Then, in September 1914, Winston Churchill offered him a commission in the Royal Navy Division, which was then being formed and in October he sailed with his division for Antwerp, which was under German attack.
Brooke had been exposed to one reality of the war, but he cannot have appreciated the disparity between a soldier’s lot at the front and his poetic vision of the fighting man’s patriotic courage. The war was still lazing at Christmas and had proved more costly than anyone could have predicted. The devastating losses on both sides and the horrific atrocities that were reported from the front were beginning to shake British confidence. One instance of notorious German cruelty was the brutal massacre by firing squad of over 600 civilians at Dinant on the 23rd August; the corpses identified included that of a child only three weeks old. Yet, at Christmas time, Brooke was to be found correcting the proofs of his five sonnets 1914, anticipating the next stage of the game.
Meanwhile in England, Charles Sorley, another early poet of the Great War, was impatiently waiting to be billeted to the front. Sorley was a scholar of Marlborough College, where he excelled at debating, games, and in the O.T.C., before winning a place at University College, Oxford. His parents advised him to study abroad for a year before going up, so he travelled to Germany and became immersed in German culture. When war was declared, he returned to England immediately to enlist. After months of training and military routine that he hated, he was finally posted in May 1915, a 2nd lieutenant in the Suffolk regiment.
Sorley’s poetry is of a very different style to Brooke’s. In fact, Sorley severely criticised Brooke’s 1914 sonnets, claiming that the poet was over-praised and obsessed with his own sacrifice. Primarily Hardy, Masefield, Ibsen, Goethe and Homer influenced Sorley, and he was highly critical of the late Victorians. He was critical, too, of some of Hardy’s more “public” poetry, but interestingly enough he praised The Dynasts for its honesty and unremitting truth to events and human nature. His attachment to German culture and learning made it easy for him to distrust the shallow British patriotism, which greeted the start of the war, but at the same time he was distressed by German’s brutality.
The poetry Charles Sorley wrote in the early months of the war reveals the narrowness of this critical generalization. The force of his work foreshadows the sense of disillusionment that was to characterise the poetry of the later years. He was, it must be confessed, something of an exception to the rule since, for many young poets, Rupert Brooke epitomized poetic excellence. W.H. Hodgson was of the school of Brooke, whose poetry he admired. When war broke out, he enlisted immediately and served in the Devonshire Regiment. His poetry was very much in the spirit of Brooke’s, and it appeared in The Spectator and Saturday Post, two popular patriotic magazines.
Seeking inspiration from Brooke’s work, however, did not preclude originality. Wilfred Gibson was a very close friend of Brooke’s and a member of Edward Marsh’s circle too, but his war poetry has an unusual quality, written as it was from the point of view of the ordinary foot soldier (Gibson served as a private in the infantry). His was a voice from the ranks and his poetry lacks the declamatory, selfconsciously chivalric quality of much of the early First World War period. Before the war, his poetry had been concerned with the lives of industrial workers and village labourers, and the themes of his war poetry can be seen as an extension to these interests, capturing and rendering poignant the fleeting moments of experience.
Another perspective on the war that emerges in the early poetry is the prevalent tone of disgust and dismay as English optimism eroded. Although their contributing was largely neglected, women had their part to play in the poetry of the war too, as has been recognized in Catherine Reilly’s fine anthology Scars Upon My Heart. Alice Meynell was already well known as an essayist and poet when the war broke out. A friend of Coventry Patmore, Meredith and Tennyson, her poetry had originally been refined, pious and delicately Late Victorian, but by the time she wrote Summer In England 1914, there were some new stylistic developments. Her poetry reveals her as a tough, uncompromising observer of the modern world and critical of its ways. To her, the war represented the ultimate folly of modern times, and she contrasted it with the routine luxuriance of the world of nature:
“-while this rose made round her cup,
The armies died convulsed. And then
This chaste young silver sun went up
Softly, a thousand shattered men,
One wet corruption, heaped the plain,
After a league-long throb of pain.”
Her view was shared by two other talented women poets- Mary Webb and Marie Carmichael Stopesand their voices united to decry the pitiful waste of the war.
Robert Ernest Vernde was an example of a fighting poet who demonstrated sympathy with the sentiments of these women in England. An established writer of French descent, he enlisted in September 1914 in the 19th Royal Fusiliers, to be commissioned in 1915 in the Rifle Brigade.
On 21st of September 1914, the Times published what was to become one of the most frequently celebrated poems to emerge from the war- Laurence Binyon’s For the Fallen. Binyon, born in 1869 and educated at St.Pauls and Trinity College, Oxford, was employed at the British Museum in charge of oriental prints and drawings, and did not go to the front himself until 1916 when he went as a red cross orderly. For the Fallen appeared at the time when the battles of the Marne and the advance to the River Aisne were foremost in the public’s mind.
“With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
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.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight limb, true eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted:
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left to grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the daytime;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
But where our desires are and hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end they remain.”
This is a strangely effective poem, of which it would be true to say that the whole is a greater than that sum of its parts. It consciously adopts a kind of ” high seriousness” that would have pleased Matthew Arnold, and assumes a Shakespearian tone of voice -” Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn”- that obviously echoes “Age cannot whither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety”(Antony and Cleopatra). The word order is reminiscent of the authorised version of the Bible: “They mingle not with their laughing comrades”. The poem gradually grew in reputation as its sentiments became more and more appropriate to the scale of the nation’s grief. Although beginning in the spirit of 1914, the themes of the poem, as they develop, grow closer to the mood of 1918. It has, of course, become the standard cenotaph poem, quoted at all military funerals. Several lines from For the Fallen are carved by the entrance to the British museum as a tribute to its staff that died in the Great War. Yet, considering that Binyon wrote it when the war was only eight weeks old, it is surprising that his poem should have struck home so hard that it was published in The Times, and became one of the best-known poems of the Great War.
Rupert Brooke was delighted when he learnt he was to be among the force sent to the Dardanelles. For him the expedition had all the glamour of Homeric association and gorgeous Orient. He had never felt so happy in his life, or so much that his life had firm purpose. On 28th February, the Naval division sailed on the Grantully Castle from Avonmouth. On 18th March, the first Anglo-French naval attack on the Dardanelles failed; it was badly organized and the ships used were obsolete. Brooke and his division arrived at Port Said on 27th march ignorant of what lay ahead. Brooke enjoyed three days’ leave for sightseeing, viewing the pyramids and sphinx, riding camels and shopping in the bazaars. Sir lan Hamilton, commander of the Anglo-French army assisting the navy in forcing the Dardanelles, came to review the Naval Division on 3rd April, and offered Brooke a post on his staff. Brooke declined the offer, preferring to serve his own men. The last poem he wrote, known simply as Fragment, was written on board the troopship that took him to the Aegean Sea. They landed in Scyros on April 17th. Rupert Brooke died on the 23rd of April, traditionally Shakespeare’s birthday, and the name day of Britain’s patron saint, St. George.
The poetry that was written in this year represents an interesting combination of attitudes. In May 1915, one of the key poems of the early stages of the war was published in The Times -Julian Grenfell’s poem Into Battle appeared in print on the day that his death was announced. Into Battle is significant not because it is a great poem, but because it captures the curious rapture with which it was still possible to write about the war. Grenfell was a regular soldier who had been a member of the Eton-Balliol set fostered by Edward Marsh. In the royal Dragoons, serving India, he had enjoyed to the full all the activities considered appropriate to a young cavalry officer. In South Africa, where he was next stationed, he developed into a skilful boxer and horseman. The great thing about Grenfell’s poem is that it is not about the rights or wrongs of the war, Germany’s crime, or England’s honour; it is almost mystical celebration of man’s need to struggle. Fighting is seen as the way human beings fulfil themselves, it is a manifestation of the life force, and if the poem is read carefully it will be seen that throughout the fighting man is associated with the sun, the bright company of heaven and the world of nature. It is probable that 1915 was the last year in which the British public would find such a war poem acceptable.
So, in the end, it is quite obvious that the poetry of the First World War made a much greater impact on the lives of people in contrast to those poems of the second.
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