Empson’s “Newly Discovered War Poems”

In the huge Complete Poems of William Empson (The collection isn’t huge, but the notes are of Ricksian proportions) there is a squib from 1928, called Newly Discovered War Poems.

It goes like this:

The sappers dug through Archie yesterday.
There he was buried slap in the way of the mine.
And – Oh my God!
Scrunch.
Trickle, trickle, trickle.
Archie used to say
One day was like another day
His love for play on any day was gay.
He threw a many yesterdays away.
He had a better stomach, as a sapper, than I have.
Where is the bullet?
Give it me: mud, mud, mud.
Mud, oh, my God! Oh my God! mud.
Oh my mud!
Ping!

This was published in the Cambridge magazine Granta in November 1928, the tenth anniversary of the Armistice.

Is it the work of an undergraduate showing he’s fed up with all the pieties that must have been swirling around at the time?

Or is an intellectual poet showing his superiority to trench poets who use simple rhymes like play/day/gay without thinking through their possible richer meanings?

If it’s a parody, it’s maybe of the onomatopoeic verse of Robert Nichols, who also seems to be the target of J.B.Morton’s ridicule in Gorgeous Poetry. Nichols was highly rated during the war, but his stock has been sliding ever since.

Is Empson simply saying that all war poetry is no good? That it’s bound to be just one thing after another, until finally some pinging bullet hits the poet? Is he anticipating Yeats’s line about passive suffering not being a fit subject for poetry?

Or (since this is Empson)  is there an ambiguity of feeling here? Is he intellectually thinking war poetry ridiculous, while emotionally he’s interested, and wants to have a go at it? At this time, many young men seem to have felt that war was the test of manhood, and that soon they too would be tested. Is he daring himself to make sick jokes? The sappers digging through a hail of anti-aircraft fire (Archie) are soon literally putting their spades through a man called Archie. Yuk.

Is this one of Empson’s unbelieving poems? Oh my God becomes Oh my mud! God as the condition of man’s being – mud the condition of a trench soldier’s existence?

Why is the title “Newly Discovered War Poems” when there is only one poem? Is the implication that all war poems are much the same, and one can stand for many?

The editor of the Complete Poems provides notes quite exorbitantly voluminous for most of Empson’s verses, but this is tucked away in an appendix, and has no annotation at all, apart from a bald note of its first publication. Tantalising.

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