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.