Maybe it’s a byproduct of the failure of the current messy war, but there has been a rancorous flavour to the Remembrance season this year. First there was the silly vicar claiming that red poppies were less Christian than white ones, then Jon Snow complaining that people who wanted him to wear a poppy on TV were “poppy fascists”. He actually makes a reasonable case:
I am begged to wear an Aids Ribbon, a breast cancer ribbon, a Marie Curie flower… You name it, from the Red Cross to the RNIB, they send me stuff to wear to raise awareness, and I don’t. And in those terms, and those terms alone, I do not and will not wear a poppy.
Additionally there is a rather unpleasant breed of poppy fascism out there – ‘he damned well must wear a poppy!’. Well I do, in my private life, but I am not going to wear it or any other symbol on air.
Fair enough – but the phrase “poppy fascism” is risibly extreme. It’s not like being told to wear a yellow star.
Now, to add to the rancour, Craig Raine celebrates Remembrance day with an attack on the “strenuous posturing” of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, whose work:
goes down so well with sentimental readers who, deprived of heroism, are equally willing to embrace its unidentical twin – unmitigated horror.
It is the replacement of overstatement by another form of overstatement.
Owen especially gets the big boot:
It’s a pity that, for Owen, the poetry is in the pity. Discomfiting detail, awkward accuracy doesn’t get into his poetry, which consistently succumbs to poetry’s greatest weakness – easy, posturing eloquence. At least Sassoon, with his debt to Kipling’s “Barrack Room Ballads”, has an effective line in the sardonic.
Linking Sassoon to Kipling is suggestive – Tim Kendall develops this connection in his expensive recent book – but if you can only see posturing in Owen, surely you’re missing the point. It’s interesting that the poet Raine uses as a foil to Owen is Arthur Hugh Clough, who reduced the high drama of the 1848 revolutions to the linguistic register of social comedy:
Sweet it may be and decorous, perhaps, for the country to die; but,
On the whole, we conclude the Romans won’t do it, and I sha’n’t.
I heard Raine give an enthusiastic (and very good) talk on Betjeman the other week, and Clough came in here too, as a precursor in the “serio-comic” tradition (and so does early Eliot). A big feature of this tradition is the pithy phrase that exactly captures an observation of behaviour. Raine himself is the most visual of poets, and Owen is mostly not.
I admire Clough enormously (and Betjeman and early Eliot) but Owen is doing something different.
He’s the only poet who’s ever made me cry as I was reading him aloud to a class. But perhaps that just means I’m one of the “sentimental readers” Raine is talking about.