The Leveller (in Up the Line to Death)

At the moment I’m marking A-Level papers on First World War Literature, which is an interesting job. When I’ve finished I’ll write a general piece with some hints and tips for students, and suggestions about how to avoid some common pitfalls.

The process has made me re-read carefully, for the first time in a long while, the most popular of the poetry set texts, Brian Gardner’s Up the Line to Death, first published in 1964, and revised in 1976 (with updates 1986 and 2007).

The anthology contains plenty of good poems, and is popular with teachers. This, I suspect, is why AQA keep it as a set text on their new syllabus. Alternatives are offered (Scars on my Heart and the WW1 section of  Stallworthy’s Oxford Book of War Poetry) but if the centres I have marked are anything to go by, Up the Line to Death rules.  This must partly be because of the tyranny of the stock cupboard. If a school has copies of this anthology to hand, why spend precious capitation on something new? (A major reason why the same old warhorses – Lord of the Flies and Of Mice and Men – are chosen every year for GSCE students to read, and more recent alternatives shunned.)

The limitations of Gardner’s anthology are well-known. He presents the war as a journey from unthinking jingoism to disillusionment; soldiers begin in Georgian innocence and end confronting horrors. There is an implication that all soldiers went through the same process of reaction and rejection as Siegfried Sassoon, whereas he was, of course, very atypical. Poets whose work does not fit this schematic pattern are left out – most notably Ivor Gurney. In many cases, the chronology is falsified to fit the pattern – so that a Richard Aldington war poem is included in the 1914 section, even though he did not enlist till conscripted in 1916. To have included Field Manoevres (rather a good poem) in the 1916 section of the anthology would have spoilt Gardner’s thesis that only dark and grim verse was written after the Somme.

But what has struck me this morning is the fact that in forty-five years of the book’s existence, nobody has bothered to correct a glaring misprint. One of the poems that students were asked to comment on this year was Robert Graves’s The Leveller, which describes how two contrasting men were killed by the same shell. In this anthology the description of one of them reads:

One was a pale eighteen-year-old,
Blue-eyed and thin and not too bold,
Pressed for the war not ten years too soon,
The shame and pity of his platoon.

That third line does not make sense, does it? It should of course read:

Pressed for the war ten years too soon,

I wonder how many teachers and students over forty-five years have pondered the grammar of that line. The students have probably shrugged, deciding that poetry doesn’t usually make much sense anyway. But have no teachers ever pointed out the error to Methuen, for whom the book must be a nice little earner?

My choice for a set anthology, by the way, would be The Winter of the World, scrupulously edited by Dominic Hibberd and John Onions. Maybe it was published just too late to be considered by the board when they set the specifications for the new exam.


  1. Posted June 20, 2009 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Another glaring misprint in the same book. Yesterday I corrected a student for misnaming Edgell Rickword as ‘Rickwood’. Today I’ve noticed that in the anthology that splendid poem ‘Winter Warfare’ is indeed credited to ‘Rickwood’.
    Anyone can make a typo (and some entries in this blog are riddled with them, especially the ones written late in the evening, after a glass or two of Tempranillo). But this book has been in print for forty-five years, and has gone through several revisions.

    I shall write to Methuen.

  2. Andy Frayn
    Posted June 23, 2009 at 12:27 am | Permalink

    At the very best one could say that Aldington supposedly *tried* to enlist in August 1914, but was turned away on medical grounds. He actually enlisted in 1916, shortly before conscription was due to come in, in order to serve with Carl Fallas – presumably for moral support. It does seem unlikely, though, that the poem was written before 1916 at the earliest.

    Terrible errors, as you point out. Particularly the addendum about misnaming Rickword. Comments about standards remind me of this recent article which you may have seen:

  3. Posted June 23, 2009 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Andy –
    Thanks for the link. The chopping of A-levels into modules definitely does seem to encourage short-term thinking.
    What concerns me more though is that the recent re-jigging of A-Level syllabuses has reduced the number of papers from six to four (two in the AS year, two for A2).
    Of these, two – one in each year – are coursework. Given that every teacher knows how dodgy the coursework system is, this must be a recipe for disaster.
    When a student hands in a piece of coursework you can never be entirely sure how much help he or she has been given by parents, private tutors, or others. I’ve heard of private tutors who find that their students pretty well expect the tutor to do the coursework for them. In some schools, especially those feeling under pressure about results, the input of teachers can exceed what others might consider acceptable. When Prince Harry’s art teacher at Eton claimed that she had been expected to do the written part of the work for him, there was a great deal of embarrassed shuffling from the educational establishment. It happens.
    I’m sure there is a place for coursework in A-Levels. For one thing it is a great motivator. Students work harder at a piece of writing that counts in the final result than they do at one that is just for Sir to read. The present system, however, gives a big advantage to students whose parents are educated enough to give significant assistance, or rich enough to employ a tutor. It’s worrying.

  4. kate
    Posted February 12, 2010 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    I was under the mis-apprehension that we all loved up the line to death & were not worried about the A system….. my sonis doing the same old poetry in school…introduced him to
    “Fair broke the the wind this morning across the Dardenelles”… many beautiful poems we have that were “found amongst their papers” Let tem read the the harsh reality…I know as a young teen this book made me re-address my whole conception..and given in this day of dog wars, against foes, we do not hate, it is all the more applicable.
    let me know what you think…meanwhile I like to read Robert Service as a starting point for youn children

  5. roohi
    Posted December 10, 2014 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    death equilizes everything
    ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………… 😉 🙂

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