T.S.Eliot on War Poetry

During the war, when war poets were doing their noble and/or anguished thing everywhere, T.S. Eliot, whose poetical priorities were very different, could be scathing about them. Today I’ve been looking at The Egoist which employed him as assistant editor from 1917 to 1919. He pointedly comments that a poem by Ford Madox Hueffer was “the only good poem I have met with on the subject of the war”.

Reviewing an anthology of modern poetry, he deals with everybody’s favourite Great War glamour-boy by noting simply “Rupert Brooke is not absent”. To develop the fun, he mischievously prints a fake letter to the Editor in the next month’s issue, supposedly from one Helen B. Trundlett of Batton, Kent:

…I have, I pride myself, kept abreast of the times in literature: at least, if I have not, the times have moved very speedily indeed. I was therefore surprised… to find Rupert Brooke dismissed with the words “He is not absent”. Brooke’s early poems exhibit a youthful exuberance of passion, and an occasional coarseness of utterance, which offended finer tastes; but these were but dross which, as his last sonnets show, was purged away (if I may be permitted this word) in the fire of the Great Ordeal which is proving the well-spring of a Renaissance of English poetry.

So what did he want?This is Eliot reviewing Herbert Read in 1919:

It is the best war poetry that I can remember having seen. It is better than the rest because it is more honest; because it is neither Romance nor Reporting; because it is unpretentious; and it has emotion as well as a version of things seen. For a poet to observe that war is ugly and not on the whole improving to the soul is not a novelty any more; but Mr Read does it with a quiet and careful conviction which is not very common.

2 Comments

  1. Andy Frayn
    Posted August 4, 2006 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Ford’s poem being, of course, ‘Antwerp’.

  2. Posted March 5, 2012 at 5:06 am | Permalink

    Eliot in one word was a great war poet


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