The New Oxford Book of War Poetry


Jon Stallworthy’s Oxford Book of War Poetry was first published thirty years ago. Vernon Scannell, in a generally appreciative Guardian review, noted that ‘this editor’s selective criteria are rather obscure’, and indeed there is an interesting quirkiness in the selections that Professor Stallworthy makes from three thousand years of poetry, from the Book of Exodus (‘The Lord is a man of war: the Lord is his name.’) to the H-Bomb (in Peter Porter’s ‘Your Attention Please’).
He  has now revised and updated his earlier  collection, and the Oxford University Press has kindly sent me a copy for review. I am glad to say that he has not made the book less quirky, but there are changes, most of them improvements.
The beginning of the anthology is not very different, as we go through the Bible (in Tyndale’s translation) through Homer, Simonides and Virgil to Horace, in James Michie’s excellent version:

The glorious and the decent way of dying
Is for one’s country. Run and death will sieze
You no less surely. The young coward, flying,
gets his quietus in the back and knees.

In fact, the new anthology is just the same as the old one until we reach the Middle Ages, when the mediaeval epics and ballads are interrupted by a coolly modern poem by Miroslav Holub, about a fly dispassionately observing the battle of Crecy, waiting for the silence to settle, upon which

she began to lay her eggs
on the single eye
of Johann Uhr,
the Royal Armourer.

It is at this point that a reader who had skipped the introduction might realise that the poems are ordered not according to the dates of the poets, as in most Oxford anthologies, but according to the dates of the wars described.
In the original anthology this had the potential to cause confusion. I marked some A-Level papers for an AQA syllabus that asked candidates to study the Great War section of the original anthology; some candidates got very mixed up about which poems were contemporary with the War and which were later reflections on it. This problem has now been largely resolved, since all poems are now followed by the date of composition or first publication. I am glad to see that Herbert Asquith’s ‘The Volunteer’ has been given its correct date of 1912, and has now been moved away from the run of poems actually written during the Great War.
After the international flavour of the verse covering the first two and a half millennia of war poetry, the selection becomes Anglocentric in its coverage of the years between Chaucer and Shelley. As in the first edition, the surprise is that there is no Shakespeare. Instead of ‘Once more into the breach…’ we get Drayton’s account of Agincourt in ‘To the Cambro-Britons’:

This while our noble King
his broad sword brandishing,
Down the French host did ding,
As to o’erwhelm it;
And many a deep wound lent,
His arms with blood besprent,
And many a cruel dent
Bruisèd his helmet.

I can understand why professor Stallworthy wanted to introduce his readers to the less familiar poem, but I do wish that he had found room some less familiar Shakespeare. My choice would be Lady Percy’s description of how memories of battle come back to Hotspur and disturb his sleep:

In thy faint slumbers I by thee have watch’d,
And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars;
Speak terms of manage to thy bounding steed;
Cry ‘Courage! to the field!’ And thou hast talk’d
Of sallies and retires, of trenches, tents,
Of palisadoes, frontiers, parapets,
Of basilisks, of cannon, culverin,
Of prisoners’ ransom and of soldiers slain,
And all the currents of a heady fight.
Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war
And thus hath so bestirr’d thee in thy sleep,
That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow
Like bubbles in a late-disturbed stream;
And in thy face strange motions have appear’d,
Such as we see when men restrain their breath
On some great sudden hest.

This description of the symptoms of battle memories returning to disturb sleep was considered worth inclusion in the official Southborough report on ‘Shell-shock’ in 1922.

It is when the anthology enters the twentieth century that the new edition begins to differ notably from the first. Patrick Shaw-Stewart’s ‘I saw a man this morning’ is now included in the Great War section. Another Rickword poem (‘Trench Poets’) is added and May Wedderburn Cannan gets two more poems in addition to ‘Rouen’. Owen and Sasson also each get two poems added to their previous quite generous allotment, perhaps marking their centrality to our twenty-first century idea of what a ‘war poet’ is. The two Sassoon additions are surprising: ‘The Redeemer’ and ‘Christ and the Soldier.’ Were these included to show Sassoon’s range, or perhaps to show that his treatment of religion could be more complex than in ‘They’ (a much better poem, also included here)? The rather nasty ‘Glory of Women’ is still here in the second edition. This, it seems to me, is one of those poems that is interesting because it is symptomatic of attitudes of the time – in this case misogynistic attitudes blaming women for the War’s suffering – rather than because of its quality as a poem. This question arises with a few of Professor Stallworthy’s choices. Is Hugh MacDiarmid’s mean-spirited response to Housman’s ‘Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’ here because the editor thinks it a good poem, or because of the questions that it raises, and the attitude it expresses?

Poems by Apollinaire and Penjamin Péret offer a suggestion about how the War was treated by poets outside the usual British assumptions. The Apollinaire piece is a caligramme, light-heartedly turning the explosion of a shell into fireworks on the page. (But why did Oxford University Press allow this poem, the most depedent of any in the anthology on its layout, to be divided between two pages?) The Péret Little Song of the Maimed (which I had not previously realised was written as late as 1936) introduces a whiff of the sardonic into the anthology;

lend me your arm
to replace my leg
the rats ate it for me
at Verdun
at Verdun
I ate lots of rats
but they didn’t give me back my leg
and that’s why I was given the CROIX DE GUERRE
and a wooden leg
and a wooden leg

The vernacular realism of this complements the more literary verse in the same way that Tim Kendall’s inclusion of ribald soldiers’ songs gives another dimension to his anthology of Great War verse.

Professor Stallworthy insists that the Second World War ‘produced at least as many potent poems as the first’ and he gives us Henry Reed, Alun Lewis, Sidney Keyes and Keith Douglas to make his case. This new edition also includes a poem previously unknown to me: The Tomb of John Learmonth, AIF, by John Manifold, a formal elegy in terza rima:

Say Crete, and there is little more to tell
Of muddle tall as treachery, despair
And black defeat resounding like a bell;

But bring the magnifying focus near
And in contempt of muddle and defeat
The old heroic virtues still appear.

This rather impressive poem resonates well with the following poem, also an elegy in terza rima, Keith Douglas’s ‘John Anderson’, which, like Shaw-Stewart’s ‘I saw a man this morning’ from the earlier war, this poem refers back to a heroic Greek ideal of the warrior, and invokes Apollo: ‘Descend Phoebus and cleanse the stain/ of dark blood from the body of John Anderson./Give him to death and sleep…’
One of the few poems from the earlier edition to be deleted this time is Gavin Ewart’s ‘When a Beau goes in’. I regret this, and not just because Ewart is a poet I enjoy greatly, and one whose memory has been slipping away since the years when he was always there to surprise us with a new joke or ribaldry.

When a Beau goes in
Into the drink
It makes you think,
Because, you see, they always sink
But nobody says ‘poor lad’
Or goes about looking sad
Because, you see, it’s war,
It’s the unalterable law.

The understatements and haphazard rhythms of this seem, to me at least, to get closer to the voice of the World War II serviceman than Pudney’s ‘For Johnny’ (still included) or Sidney Keyes’s use of sub-Audenish ballad-form:

Oh speak no more of ceremony,
Speak no more of fame:
My heart must seek a burning land
To bury its foolish pain.

The Second World War section contains some good poems by American airmen (Randall Jarrell especially) and a helping of poems about the Holocaust. Are Holocaust poems war poems? Not strictly, perhaps, but, after all, these horrors are essential to our understanding of that war, and anyway, Anthony Hecht’s ‘More Light! More light!’ is definitely one of the best poems in the book.
Professor Stallworthy’s introduction to the new edition expresses his doubts about the Vietnam war poetry written by ‘the hundreds of armchair poets pretending […] to first-hand witness and/or degrees of moral commitment to which they were not entitled.’ War veteran John Balaban’s 1997 poem ‘In celebration of Spring’ impresses, though:

In delta swamp in a united Vietnam
a marine with a bullfrog for a face
rots in equatorial heat. An eel
slides through the cage of his bared ribs.

There are a couple of poems from more recent conflicts, and then the book rightly ends with the same intimations of possible nuclear apocalypse as its thirty-year old predecessor. Indeed such a book could not ask for a stronger conclusion than Peter Porter’s ‘Your Attention Please’. (Porter, a great friend of Gavin Ewart’s, is another of those poets whose name is now alas followed by two dates, an end as well as a beginning.)
The book has its idiosyncrasies, and I’ve argued with a few of them, but it’s a very worthwhile collection. This new edition is definitely improved by the addition of dates for each poem.

If there is another edition thirty years from now, will there be new impressive verse from more recent wars? Jon Stallworthy thinks that the current Middle-Eastern conflicts will yield their major poems in ten years time or so. I have my doubts. This anthology shows that, while there have always been depictions of war, the humanist and compassionate war poem that we celebrate flourished mostly in the twentieth century (and most notably in Anglophone cultures). It was the product of young men with a literary education joining the Army in large numbers; they had as an example the Georgian poetry of plain language, conventional form and compassion for suffering, and the best of them were shocked into a brilliant lucidity. Since then, every war has provoked the cry ‘Where are the War Poets?’ but to write a war poem now is to have a weighty tradition that invites you to copy rather than to write freshly, to write, in short, like an ‘armchair poet’ or like the entrants to Arvon competitions on ‘The Pity of War’.
If there are to be new war poets in the future, they will, if they are to be any good, need to be very different, very fresh, and probably very disrespectful of what has gone before. And what they write may not fit easily even into such an intelligent anthology as this one.

(The section of the post about John Manifold and Keith Douglas was corrected and updated on 20/07/14.)


  1. Posted July 17, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    I’m the tail end of Ireland’s North
    Peaceful at least at night
    Less the funerals
    Calmer journeys only stopping for fuel.
    Looking back and being educated
    I see any war or battle cruel
    Everyone is someone’s child
    The pain of loss the same
    When will Man stop these wars
    It’s only empty gain.

    Michelle Robinson 2014

  2. janevsw
    Posted July 17, 2014 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    I’d be interested to know if the anthology includes any of Charles Causley’s poems, for example from his time in the Royal Navy.

    • Posted July 17, 2014 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

      There are two Causley poems of remembrance, both from the 1950s.
      ‘Armistice Day’ is about standing in Parliament Square on November 11th,
      ‘But as was so often the case in the Barracks / Several ratings were not at Divisions.’ His ‘three comrades’ are dead.
      ‘At the War Cemetery, Bayeux’ imagines the dead speaking:
      Take, they replied, the oak and laurel.
      Take our fortune of tears and live
      Like a spendthrift lover. All we ask
      Is the one gift you cannot give.

      • janevsw
        Posted July 17, 2014 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

        Thanks – I know “At the War Cemetery, Bayeux” very well, but not “Armistice Day” – must look it up.

        Do you know this by William Soutar?

        On an ex-serviceman who died during a hunger march
        (a thought for Armistice Day)

        When in the silence you remember them,
        Who were destroyed by war, remember him
        For whom the bugles that resounded Cease!
        Pronounced his privilege to starve in peace.


  3. Posted July 17, 2014 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the Soutar, Jane. That’s a fine epigram.
    Causley was one of my poetic enthusiasms as a teenager – in a volume of the Penguin Modern Poets series, together with George Barker, who I couldn’t make much sense of, and Martin Bell, who was witty and clever, but not as good as Causley. I like him because he doesn’t fit into the usual narratives by which people explain 20th cantury poetry. He’s his own man. And I don’t think he developed particularly – the later poems are not very unlike the earlier ones.

  4. Bill
    Posted July 18, 2014 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Although I am not sure “mean-spirited” is just, you are surely quite right that MacDiarmid’s squib is there only for the purposes of debate rather than from high merit. Although Housman’s Epitaph has been hailed by some as one of his greatest pieces (wrongly I feel), I don’t think anyone has ever tried to rate the MacDiarmid highly even within his own work. Yet, the debate on the role and meaning of mercenaries is surely worth having, especially in the days of the “private security company”.

    As a classicist Housman’s references would have been largely late Roman, and to some lesser extent Greek, whereas MacDiarmid was writing about the time of the first publication of General Gwynn’s “Imperial Policing”, the classic text book of military force used in the colonies (Amritsar 1919 being its first example). I am not really sure either of them was writing with the BEF in mind (I strongly suspect Housman picked out an existing piece when he was asked for a contribution, rather than writing a poem to order – something he rarely did).

    In my childhood, of course, mercenaries were those white “adventurers” in Africa. And I believe Housman’s Epitaph is sung over the closing title of the film of “The Dogs of War”.

    It seems odd that it is now illegal in UK law to go and fight abroad out of belief, but perfectly legal to go and fight for money.

    • Posted July 18, 2014 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      Housman wrote his poem for the third anniversary of the Battle of Ypres (and Kipling thought it best of all the poems of the war).
      MacDiarmid published his poem in 1935. As a communist he was following the Leninist orthodoxy by stating (not arguing) that the Great War was not fought for ‘anything worth a man’s pride’. Tim Kendall writes some sharp words on MacDiarmid’s politics (and very selective condemnation of murderers) here:

      Something that strikes me about the pair of poems (Housman’s and MacDiarmid’s) is their attitude to God. In Housman’s poem, God is untrustworthy, failing, and abandoning humans. In his absence, these soldiers must do the job of saving mankind that ought to be God’s work.
      MacDiarmid, on the other hand, is confident that God is on his side, and to assert the opposite is ‘a God-damned lie’. His is the confidence of the propagandist, and his poem’s language is the language of propaganda that drives past ambiguities with the clichés of bullying certainty: ‘Blood money’, ‘professional murderers’. He asserts that men whose action he disapproves of can have no good motives, and nothing to be proud of. He and God know better. That is why I call the poem mean-spirited.

  5. Bill
    Posted July 18, 2014 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Although I appreciate that Housman’s poem first came out in The Times in 1917 for the anniversary of first Ypres, I am not sure when it was actually composed (unless the recent recovery of the manuscript notebook page casts some more light). Both he and MacDiarmid were, of course, self-proclaimed atheists, so their uses of God or gods are never wholly straightforward. “God-damned” to MacDiarmid is largely just an emphatic oath and it is the use of “impious” that is more intriguing. On the face of it, though, neither poet suggests that the soldiers are fighting for anything except financial reward, even if Housman manages to imply there is something noble about the act of dying for money, if not the act of killing for money.

    • Posted July 18, 2014 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

      Housman’s is an honest atheism, in that he is describing a world where God is absent.
      The point of his poem, written at a time when the volunteers of the New Army were praised for their moral commitment and honour, is to remind readers that in the crucial days of 1914, it was not these gallant figures who saved Europe from German domination, but the old sweats of the regular Army. The paradox is there in the poem that these men are not particularly morally admirable; they did not enlist out of idealism; they are the types who, in George Orwell’s phrase, ‘did the dirty work of Empire’. Yet because of them France, and therefore Europe, was saved. That’s the paradox that he presents the reader with, to puzzle out as we will. the fact that it’s a paradox with no easy answer is part of what makes this a very good poem.
      If MacDiarmid’s use of ‘God’ is just, as you suggest, empty rhetoric, then that’s surely another reason for being unimpressed by his poem.
      Since Housman allowed his poem to be used as part of the commemoration of Ypres, surely we have to accept that as part of the meaning of the poem.

      • Bill
        Posted July 19, 2014 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

        In terms of personal belief, I think both atheisms were honest enough (Housman’s a High Church Anglican atheism and MacDiarmid’s a Calvinist atheism), but both poets were quite happy to use the apparatus of several religions – and none – to furnish their works. And I think MacDiarmid’s use of “God-damned” is subtler than you suggest. “Les goddams”, after all, was French slang for the profane British soldiery that ravaged France in the Hundred Years War, who were the linear ancestors of Wellington’s “scum”, the “old sweats” of 1914 and the 1930s police of the Empire that Orwell and MacDiarmid came to hate. Housman has a recurring soft spot for soldiers who go uncomplaining to largely pointless deaths (“The Spartans on the sea-wet rock” et al), whereas for MacDiarmid unquestioning obedience is nothing to be admired. Of course, Housman’s epitaph is by no means the best poem of the war, whilst MacDiarmid’s epitaph is not even the best poem in “Second Hymn”. It is unfortunate in many ways that they are so widely anthologised as a pair, however useful they are for generating debate.

  6. faulconbridge
    Posted July 20, 2014 at 4:06 am | Permalink

    It’s worth remembering that one of Housman’s brothers was a sergeant in the British regular army- which made him one of the “mercenaries” referred to- and died in the Boer War. Some of Housman’s earlier soldier poems- “Lancer” and “Grenadier”, for example- were inspired by his death.

    Given MacDiarmid’s attitude to Stalin and the Soviet Union, I don’t think he thought “unquestioning obedience is nothing to be admired”. It was merely a question of who was unquestioningly obeyed.

  7. Bill
    Posted July 20, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    MacDiarmid was never one for a “party line” and was expelled from the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1936, largely for his views on Scottish independence. But he was always a man of contradictions. After all, at 16 he joined both the ILP and the Territorial Army.

  8. Bill
    Posted July 20, 2014 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, George. Returning to your original post, I suspect there is a misediting in your draft. The way it now reads you seem to attribute a classical refrence to the Manifold piece that properly belongs to a different poem (Keith Douglas’s John Anderson, another new addition). The hero that Manifold summons to Learmobnth’s side is the decidedly non-classical Jack Dowling (Doolan), the “Wild Colonial Boy”.

    • Posted July 20, 2014 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      You’re right. I must have got my notes mixed – the Douglas follows Manifold and is also terza rima. Thanks. I’ll do a rewrite of that passage.

  9. Posted August 27, 2014 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    In this review I mentioned in passing the excellence of Gavin Ewart, now perhaps under-appreciated. Anyone wanting to see what Ewart was capable of could do worse than look at his ‘Two Semantic Limericks’, recently put online by the TLS:

    • Roger
      Posted August 27, 2014 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

      “Semantic poetry” was invented by the Polish-born Stefan Themerson in his novel Bayamus of which Bertrand Russell said “Perhaps the highest
      compliment that I can pay to your book is to say that it is nearly
      as mad as the world.”.

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