The New Oxford Book of War Poetry


Jon Stallworthy’s Oxford Book of War Poetry was first published thirty years ago. Vernon Scannell, in a generally appreciative Guardian review, noted that ‘this editor’s selective criteria are rather obscure’, and indeed there is an interesting quirkiness in the selections that Professor Stallworthy makes from three thousand years of poetry, from the Book of Exodus (‘The Lord is a man of war: the Lord is his name.’) to the H-Bomb (in Peter Porter’s ‘Your Attention Please’).
He  has now revised and updated his earlier  collection, and the Oxford University Press has kindly sent me a copy for review. I am glad to say that he has not made the book less quirky, but there are changes, most of them improvements.
The beginning of the anthology is not very different, as we go through the Bible (in Tyndale’s translation) through Homer, Simonides and Virgil to Horace, in James Michie’s excellent version:

The glorious and the decent way of dying
Is for one’s country. Run and death will sieze
You no less surely. The young coward, flying,
gets his quietus in the back and knees.

Read More »

Ethel Mannin on Arnold Bennett

arnold bennett

In Ethel Mannin’s Confessions and Impressions (1930), there’s this anecdote about Bennett:

I love the story about Arnold Bennett and the young man who so much wanted to meet him. A mutual friend introduced them during a chance encounter in the street. At the spot at which they stood, a carter was carrying a heavy trunk into a house. The young man stood waiting for the great Arnold Bennett to say something witty or profound, but Arnold Bennett was preoccupied with the spectacle of the man carrying the heavy trunk. He would talk of nothing else. It fascinated him. No human being ought to expect another human being to carry a trunk that size… Did they realise what the weight of such a trunk must be?

This story sums up what makes Bennett such a good novelist. No acting the part of a great man; just looking, and imaginatively immersing himself in what he sees, and thinking about the human cost.
There’s another story, about a critic damning a love-scene in one of Bennett’s books as ‘an orgy of lust’.

Arnold Bennett is supposed to have retorted, ‘Orgy of fiddlesticks! If love isn’t an orgy of lust, it ought to be!’

Ethel Mannin on ‘Journey’s End’

ethel mannin

Ethel Mannin

This month at the Reading 1900-1950 reading group we’re looking at the work of Ethel Mannin. I’m reading her Confessions and Impressions (1930), an alternately fascinating and annoying book of memoirs. I was struck by her comments on Journey’s End:

The reason why we have so little great art of any kind today is primarily because of our chronic self-consciousness. Therein lies the secret of the greatness of Journey’s End. Sherriff wrote quite simply and un-self-consciously about something which he knew, something he had observed and felt. The title had nothing to do with Shakeskpeare so far as he is concerned – it was the name of the trench he was in. He had no literary ideas to air when he wrote the play, no tiresome little ideals to postulate.

This is interesting as an indication of the status of Journey’s End in 1930. She firmly labels it ‘great art’. Yet she insists on its artlessness.
Which is typical of many critics of war books and poems, then and later. The work is valued insofar as it is an unmediated chunk of raw experience, and the critic prefers not to notice that it is a made, considered thing. Journey’s End, of course, is a very carefully crafted play. It is not just experience thrown down on the page, but a considered and quite intricate reworking of material that Sherriff  had originally tried and failed to shape into a novel.
This passage occurs, slightly oddly, in the middle of a discussion of the sculptor Jacob Epstein, who, like the Sherriff of Mannin’s imagination, is also ‘simply being himself, knocking up masterpieces by accident.’
D. H. Lawrence is another who has ‘the supreme lack of self-consciousness of the natural artist’.
I think that this is the first time I’ve ever seen the rather repressed and gentlemanly Sherriff compared with Lawrence. I don’t think I’m convinced.

The Folio ‘Parade’s End’


The Folio Society are marking the centenary of the Great War with a reprint of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy, in two volumes. They have kindly sent copies to me to review on this site.
The books are very handsome indeed, as one might expect from the Folio Society. The paper is good, the text is clear, and there are attractive illustrations. These are lino-cuts by James Albon; the pictures are always vivid and interesting, and his style is very appropriate to the roughness and drama of the military chapters.parades end 2 Read More »

Some new websites

Today is Sarajevo day, and therefore as good as any (and better than most) for mentioning A Century Back a new blog that intends day by day to record what happened exactly a century ago. So today, obviously, the author writes about the assassination, and quotes Stefan Zweig’s memory of a sudden silence:

And so it was that I suddenly stopped reading when the music broke off abruptly. I did not know what piece the band was playing. I noticed only that the music had broken off… Something must have happened. I got up and saw that the musicians had left their pavilion… I noticed that the people had crowded excitedly around the bandstand because of an announcement which had evidently just been put up. It was, as I soon learned, the text of a telegram announcing that His Imperial Majesty, the successor to the crown, Franz Ferdinand…

So far. so factual, but Josh the author tells me:

I have sneaky plans, later on, to complicate our notions of storytelling and history by also introducing fictional characters (as long as their authors’ actual war experience vouches for their “realism”) into the rolling timeline–what Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant was doing on this day, that sort of thing.

This is definitely a blog that I shall follow.
Another new blog is Michael Bully’s Great War at Sea Poetry Project . Mr Bully feels that soldier poets have been privileged in the canon at the expense of sailors. He is therefore looking for sailor poets. I don’t think he’s found many yet, but it’s the sort of search that can uncover unexpected goodies.
In a much more orthodox vein, the English Association has created a rather impressive site called Discover War Poets. A good range of poets is on display, with examples of their work and snippets of commentary of the sort likely to be useful for students wanting help with their homework.

‘Culture Wars’ papers now online

Some of the papers from the very enjoyable ‘Culture Wars’ conference at Sheffield Hallam University are available online. They are on the site of the Middlebrow Network, which has done much over the past few years to encourage intelligent thinking about the less academically respectable kinds of writing.
My own paper is about detective stories. Called ‘Cambridge versus the Cosy’, it contrasts the attitudes of Ludwig Wittgenstein (crazy-keen to read tales about hard-boiled American private eyes and Q.D. Leavis, who regarded all detective stories with scorn but reserved her special loathing for the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, which she lambasted in one of the most spectacularly damning reviews ever written.
It’s one of those papers where I’d have liked to have more time than the allotted twenty minutes. Maybe I’ll expand on it one day.
If I do rework it, it will be with more understanding of Q. D. Leavis. Jan Montefiore, who was at the conference, has kindly sent me an offprint of her interview with Kate Varney, the Leavises’ daughter (Women: A Cultural Review, vol 19 no 2, 2008)
Kate Varney gives a picture of her mother as a complicated woman, from a close family who cut her off when she married outside the Jewish faith. Read More »

‘Comrades in Conscience’

comrades in con

I read Cyril Pearce’s Comrades in Conscience soon after its publication back in 2001. This was one of the first books to make me understand that there were interesting and complex stories to be told about the Home Front during the War.
Did I lend my copy to someone? Well, it disappeared anyway. I thought vaguely of obtaining a replacement, because this is a useful book. I didn’t get round to it, though, until recently, when I saw that a second edition was about to be published.
For those who don’t know it, the book is about the conscientious objectors in Huddersfield during the First World War, and their roots in the radical traditions of the town. Cyril Pearce interviewed some of the pacifists of 1914-18 back in the sixties, developed his research into an M.A. thesis in the eighties, turned it into a book at the start of this century, and has now produced a revised version. His wider research on war resisters nationally is due to be published in book form next year, I think.
Cyril Pearce’s book suggests that the usual perception of objectors as lone opinionated martyrs (Jeremy Paxman in his recent TV series decided that absolutists must be ‘cranks’) is not accurate. Rather, they came from political and religious communities that gave them moral support for their stand. He traces the Huddersfield objectors back to their political upbringing in the left-wing parties and the Socialist Sunday Schools, and points out that far from being isolated, they could on occasion bring a large enough crowd of supporters to the Tribunal to worry the authorities. Read More »

‘Non-Combatants and Others’

Yesterday evening’s rather good Radio 3 talk on Rose Macaulay’s 1916 novel Non-Combatants and Others is available online at

It is by Sarah Le Fanu, Macaulay’s biographer, and gives a clear picture of the novel, which I seriously recommend to anyone interested in fiction of the War.

A subject that Ms le Fanu didn’t deal with was the book’s publishing and reception history, though this is interesting because it shows that a book questioning war enthusiasm could find both a commercial publisher and an audience in 1916s.

Surprisingly, this novel was published by Hodder and Stoughton, although Macaulay was by no means a typical Hodder author. Read More »

Eliot, Joyce, Gogarty, Jesus

It’s a while since I last read the ‘Nighttown’ episode of Ulysses, but it’s where I opened the book when I took it off  the shelf  this evening, and I kept on reading.  Suddenly I came on something oddly familiar from a different context.

It’s at the point in the fantasy when Edward the Seventh

‘levitates over heaps of slain in the garb and with the halo of Joking Jesus, a white jujube in his phosphorescent face’.

He says:

My methods are new and are causing surprise.
To make the blind see I throw dust in their eyes.

Now where had I come across something like that before? In The Rock, of course, the play that shows so much about how Eliot thought about the Great War. When the Blackshirts enter towards the end of the first act, they chant in well-drilled unison:

We come as a boon and a blessing to all,
Though we’d rather appear in the Albert Hall.
Our methods are new in the land of the free.
We make the deaf hear and we make the blind see.

I’d identified the first couplet of this as referencing an advertisement ubiquitous in the twenties:

We come as a boon and a blessing to men,
The Pickwick, the Owl and the Waverley pen.

Read More »


There are several conferences coming up. Here are two that I might have got to if I still lived near London:

Next week at the British Library there is the second half of a conference (the first half was in Antwerp) on Languages and the First World War. The conference blog has some intriguing items, and is well worth a look.

Teaching War and Remembrance is at the Senate House, London on July 15th.

One that I shall definitely be attending is the Culture Wars conference at Sheffield Hallam this Saturday (June 14th), as I am delivering a paper on Dorothy L. Sayers, Q. D. Leavis and Ludwig Wittgenstein (with only the tiniest mention of the First World War) .

In September I shall be at Oxford for the British Poetry of the First World War conference.

In November there is another Marginalised Mainstream conference in London. I have enjoyed these conferences before – always very varied, and you meet interesting people. The theme this year is disguise, and I’m thinking of offering a paper on the writer Evadne Price, who disguised herself as Helen Zenna Smith and wrote the powerful war novel, Not So Quiet… I’ve got a week or so to make up my mind.

Any more conference news? Please leave a comment.


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