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
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.