Another First World war poetry anthology? Surely there are plenty in the bookshops already? A new offering needs to be pretty special to justify its existence. Luckily Tim Kendall’s new Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology is very good, partly because it does not follow the usual pattern.
Most such anthologies are constructed on a scheme that is thematic or chronological, or both. Sometimes a chronology can be a way of presenting an agenda: Up the Line to Death and Men who March Away both presented a picture of the War’s progress that stressed a journey from early enthusiasm to late disillusion; this gives the books a satisfying shape, and a thematic continuity. Unfortunately, it means that the editors have selected some poems because they fit the pattern, have shoe-horned others into an inappropriate place in the chronological order, and have left out poems that cast doubt on this particular interpretation of the War. Dominic Hibberd and John Onions, on the other hand, in their excellent The Winter of the World, produced a corrective to this approach, with an anthology as scrupulously chronological as they could make it. This showed that poems of patriotic commitment and poems of disenchantment were both created throughout the War; their anthology is wide-ranging and gives a properly complex account of changing responses to the conflict.
In Tim Kendall’s anthology, all the examples of one poet’s work are put together, and the poets are arranged by order of birth date. This has the effect of placing the emphasis on the poetry rather than on a narrative of the war. Poems have been selected for their literary qualities rather than their documentary interest.
This means that we start off with a substantial selection from Hardy, followed by poems by Housman, Yeats and May Sinclair, and a generous helping of Kipling. Tim Kendall is giving us the message that good poetry about the war was not written by soldier-poets alone. We are forty-eight pages in before we read a poem by someone who actually served in the Army (Robert Service, the Canadian stretcher-bearer and balladeer, and it’s good to see him in this company).
Beginning with Hardy is appropriate, because his example was so important to the Georgians, whose poetic principles are described by Tim Kendall:
They wanted intelligibility in art, they wrote with deceptive simplicity in celebration of the rural landscape, and their assumptions about poetic form tended to be traditional, even conservative.
This was the Georgian tradition that informed the best of the war poets’ work, too (as did the sensitivity to suffering and injustice that is crucial to the best work of Davies and Masefield).
The Kipling selection is particularly strong. It starts with the great commanding rhetoric of ‘For All We Have and Are’, continues through a group of naval poems, including ‘My Boy Jack’ (in connection with which Tim Kendall lets the reader know that Kipling’s son John was never known as ‘Jack’, with the implication that sentimental readings of this poem may be fanciful), on to ‘Mesopotamia’, the ‘Epitaphs of the War’ and that deeply unpleasant poem, ‘A Death-Bed’, in which Kipling imagines with satisfaction the Kaiser dying painfully of cancer. When this poem is used in schools, as it deserves to be, this will forcefully convey the lesson that very good poems do not necessarily convey very admirable attitudes.
The selections from the major Great War poets (Sassoon, Owen, Rosenberg, Thomas, Rickword, Graves, Sorley, for example) contain few surprises. The poems that we would expect to see are here, well presented and usefully annotated. For many readers the surprise will come from the decision to publish poems in the order of their writer’s birth. We read Sassoon’s protests before Brooke’s idealism, and are reminded that Robert Graves was younger than both Sassoon and Owen, who were both influenced by his example.
Tim Kendall’s intention is to include the best poems, which are usually by the best poets, so he gives large selections from the major writers, and includes fewer surprises than some anthologists. There is no T.E.Hulme to brace us here, no Philip Bainbrigge to tease us, and certainly nothing by my current obsession, Armine Wodehouse.
Only in the Ivor Gurney selection (a generous seventeen poems) do we find previously uncollected work. These poems are not only very good, but they stand in something of a contrast to the rest of the anthology. Most of Gurney’s poems are written after the War, and in a mood of rather nostalgic recollection. When he recalls the reactions of soldiers to a bombardment, for example, he does not play up the drama:
One did his bootlace up, one lit his pipe and cursed
Ration tobacco, and said ‘Boys, this is war at the worst,’
One blew his nose, one plucked at a dead nettle
Growing above the trench side – and one made rattle
The breech of a rifle in ragtime, nobody ran.
Stokes Gunners at work
These poems of Gurney’s are mostly non-judgmental. In ‘The Stokes Gunners’, for example, he recalls a time ‘When Fritz and we were nearly on friendly terms’, enjoying the kind of unofficial live-and-let-live arrangement that was actually quite common on the Western Front, with the soldiers in opposing trenches offering no more than token aggression towards each other. He mocks righteous military disapproval of such sensible arrangements (‘O moral insects! O worms!’)and describes how a detachment of (presumably Canadian) Stokes gunners are sent to their sector to liven up things up with a bombardment, after which they return to Headquarters
to hand in forms
While the Gloucesters who desired peace or desired battle
Were left to pay the piper – Cursing Stokes to Hell, Montreal and Seattle.
The poem thus finishes with a euphemism and a joke, and there is no real bitterness, either to ‘Fritz’, to the visiting Stokes Gunners, or even to Headquarters. This is how war is, the poem seems to be saying, and you have to get on with it (and a bit of cursing helps). It’s Gurney’s tone that I like. When he is wounded (in the dramatic long poem ‘The Retreat’) he conveys the dreadfulness, but still makes a half-joke of it, or a joke about the intensity of his feelings:
When suddenly my arm went blazing with bright ardour of pain;
The end of music… I knelt down and cursed the double
Treachery of Fritz to Europe and to English music;
Cursed Pomerania, Saxony, Wurtemburg, Bavaria,
Prussia, Rheinland, Mecklenberg, Pomerania,
Again… (But had forgotten Franconia, Swabia,)…
He gently mocks at himself for considering himself the personification of ‘English music’, and then recalls the enumeration of the German states – to get his mind off the pain, presumably. I don’t know any other war poems quite like this.
The majority of the soldier-poets are officers, or at least gents, but Tim Kendall also includes the authentic voice of the lower ranks in a selection of soldier-songs. Folk poetry can often be as resonant as the more literary kind, and this is especially true of songs like ‘I want to go home’:
I want to go home, I want to go home.
I don’t want to go in the trenches no more,
Where whizzbangs and shrapnel they whistle and roar.
Take me over the sea, where the Alleyman can’t get at me.
Oh my, I don’t want to die, I want to go home.
J.C. Squire wrote of this and its ‘utter fed-upness’:
A gunner officer (he is dead now) sent it to me [….] and said that his men would sing that melancholy tune very quietly while grooming their horses, and that he had never heard anything in his life which moved him more.
It is such songs of endurance, together with those of mild protest or sardonic mockery, that have been most fondly remembered in the years after the War; they make up the bulk of Brophy and Partridge’s 1930 collection, and moved a generation in Joan Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War. Tim Kendall makes a point however of showing that there were other types of song, by including ‘If It’s a German – Guns Up!’:
Don’t start taking prisoners now,
Give it ’em in the neck and say ‘Bow-wow’
which is, of course, an incitement to commit a war crime.
I’m glad that he has included in this section A.P. Herbert’s song of resentment against the officious General Cameron Shute (which I can’t resist quoting in full):
The General inspecting the trenches
Exclaimed with a horrified shout
‘I refuse to command a division
Which leaves its excreta about.’
But nobody took any notice
No one was prepared to refute,
That the presence of shit was congenial
Compared to the presence of Shute.
And certain responsible critics
Made haste to reply to his words
Observing that his staff advisors
Consisted entirely of turds.
For shit may be shot at odd corners
And paper supplied there to suit,
But a shit would be shot without mourners
If somebody shot that shit Shute.
Despite its relatively limited range of poets, this is an anthology that goes beyond the depiction of the War presented in collections like Up the Line to Death and Men Who March Away. Those looking for poems of futility and suffering will find them, but there is plenty more beside,
Each poet is given a full and informative introduction, and the notes are useful and packed with information. A while ago I marked AS-level papers on the Up the Line to Death‘, and got mildly depressed about the students’ howlers. If the exam board has any sense it will use this new selection as its set text, and teachers will no longer be telling their students that Rupert Brooke had never been near a battle, that Kipling became anti-war after his son’s death, that Wilfred Gibson wrote ‘Breakfast’ from personal experience, or that jessie Pope was a major poet.
Of course one can quibble about the selection of poets. Personally I would have put some E. A. Mackintosh in there, instead of May Sinclair (but then I’ve never been able to take May Sinclair seriously). But there can be no doubt that this is a very solid anthology, and ideal for student use. Will it replace other anthologies? Of course not. The Winter of the World still gives the best idea of the flow of opinion and feeling during the war years, Vivien Noakes’s Voices of Silence gives us words from beyond the pale of literary respectability, and I’ve an affection for Martin Stephen’s Never Such Innocence, which contains many poems not found elsewhere. Maybe the centenary commemorations of the next four years will bring yet more collections, but as a student-friendly definition of the Great War canon, and as a piece of meticulous scholarship, this one will be hard to beat.