To listen to some people writing about the First World War, you get the impression of a great divide. Unthinking patriots wrote bad poetry. Awakened dissidents in the trenches wrote good poetry.
Looking through the Herald archive the other day, I found that the situation is not so clear-cut. This left-wing, war-critical paper printed a few good poems, but also printed stuff like this, addressed to E.D. Morel, of the UDC, who was in prison for sending anti-war pamphlets abroad.
To Morel in Prison
Thou good and faithful servant, enter thou
The temple where Apostles hymned their hope
Where seers still survey the wider scope
Of laws that heaven and hell us here and now
With angered sainthood haloed on their brow.
Thou art among them; while dull leaders grope
Through shame and shambles, thy pure eyes are ope
As one who finds the “Pole”, who knows the ‘Plough.’
As prophet thou hast pleaded for the weak,
As priest now suffer without hope of gain,
Except to prove that Wrong is wild and weak
And breaks against the rock of right in vain.
While tinselled hirelings punish thee for this
The Son of Man consoles thee with His kiss.
It’s by “A Soldier from France”, and surely is at least as bad as anything by Jessie Pope and her patriotic girlfriends. That “ope” is especially painful.
As I said, though, not all of the Herald’s poetry was bad. A couple of weeks before this one, they’d printed that terrific poem, Sassoon’s Base Details:
If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. “Poor young chap,”
I’d say—”I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.”
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die—in bed.