‘Up the Line to Death’

Tim Kendall  on his War Poetry blog makes a strong case against Brian Gardner’s 1964 anthology, Up the Line to Death.  It’s dated, it’s limited in its selections, it suggests a discredited view of WW1 poetry,  and it doesn’t include a single poem by Ivor Gurney. All very true, though in Gardner’s defence, he was a pioneer in this field, producing the first serious Great War anthology for forty years, and he included many good poems that were not then easily available.

Also, he gives a good helping of Isaac Rosenberg. In the fifties, the British Museum Library had refused the Rosenberg archive as of insufficient interest, and Gardner’s anthology probably did much to make general readers aware of his work.

But Tim Kendall is right on the crucial point that this anthology is very dated, and gives the misleading impression that all poets (maybe even all soldiers) followed Siegfried Sassoon’s journey from war enthusiasm to disillusionment. There are other anthologies today showing far better judgement and scholarship. My own favourite is The Winter of the World, edited by Hibberd and Onions.

But Methuen have kept this outdated book in print for solid commercial reasons. They have tarted it up with a new cover and slightly improved the biographies at the back, but they have not corrected the misprints (after more than forty years!).

This book, you see, remains the favoured anthology on exam syllabuses, and for a simple reason.

Recently I met an A-Level English teacher whose school had switched to the AQA syllabus. Since I marked the First World War option, I asked if her school did that paper.

“Oh no,” she said. “We looked in the stock  cupboard and realised we’d got lots of Victorian texts, so we’re doing the Victorian Literature option.”

There are many very good reasons for studying Victorian literature, but I doubt if this is one of them. Yet it’s the way that schools have to think. Shifting to the Great War paper would have meant an investment of perhaps thousands of pounds, while English Department budgets are faced with cuts and new GCSE syllabuses are requiring new textbooks for the Year Elevens. So the Victorians it is.

Many schools built up a collection of Up the Line to Death in the Sixties and Seventies. Each year the most disreputable copies are replaced to keep the set to the appropriate number. The exam board realises this, and when AQA switched the Great War option from A2 to AS, and made several significant changes to the requirements, they did not change the set anthology, because they knew that schools would protest if they had to totally re-stock (and many would walk away to other exam boards).

It’s the same inertia principle that has kept  dreary old standbys like Lord of the Flies on GCSE syllabuses for decades. Call it the curse of the stock-cupboard.

Michael Gove and his like pontificate like mad about what children should be taught, but financial constraints like this probably have more influence than the ideological intent of either teachers or politicians. And as times get tougher, they are likely to matter more.

One Comment

  1. Posted March 27, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    From September 2012, Up the Line to Death will be replaced on the AQA syllabus by will be replaced by The War Poems of Wilfred Owen ed. Stallworthy (Chatto and Windus).

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