The Fashion in War Poetry

I’m greatly looking forward to the British Poetry of the First World War conference at Oxford this weekend, and have been studying the programme with interest. So many panels, and hard choices to be made…

I found myself counting the poets named in the various paper titles, seeing which poets were most academically  popular in this centenary year. Of course, titles don’t tell you everything. Some papers have titles like ‘Gesture and experience in “patriotic” and “anti-war” poetry’ – with no clue about which poets are making the gestures or suffering the experience. (Mind you, that’s a very promising title: rhetorical gesture versus the recreation of experience – yes, that’s a good way into thinking about war poetry.)

There are also umbrella topics like ‘women’s poetry’ that will presumably bring in a good range of other individuals.

But the league-table of name-checks, for what it’s worth, goes like this:

Owen                                        8 mentions
Sassoon                                   6
Aldington                               4
Rosenberg                             4
Edward Thomas                  3
David Jones                          2
Sorley                                      2
J.B.Salmond                          1
Ivor Gurney                          1 *
May W Cannan                     1
Robert Service                     1
Ted Hughes                           1
T.E.Hulme                             1
Mary Borden                        1
Gordon Bottomley             1
Drummond Allison            1
Robert Graves                      1
F. W.  Harvey                        1
W. N. Hodgson                     1
D.H. Lawrence                     1

*Gurney only gets one title mention, but is well-served in the Friday evening concert.

That Owen reigns supreme is unsurprising; in the popular mind he and Sassoon are war poetry.

The surprise high-scorer is Aldington.  He’s not usually made much of a mark in anthologies (Tim Kendall cuts him out altogether) so why the surge of interest? I have to confess I’m a bit biased against him because of his nasty novels (like Stepping Heavenward and Seven Against Reeves) but I’ll be interested to hear what people have to say.

The long tail of one-mentions is promising enough, but I can’t help but notice the absentees;  Brooke, Grenfell,  Rickword and Mackintosh (another favourite of mine, though ignored by Kendall) are clearly not arousing much interest these days, and the two greatest non-combatant poets – Hardy and Kipling – go undiscussed (though Hardy will be sung to a very fine Finzi setting in the concert).

The conference finishes with a round-table discussion of the relation of poetry to history in FWW studies. With luck there will be a discussion of canon formation, and of the privileging of poetry above prose in accounts of war literature.

My own paper is about the ways that novelists presented war poets in the 1920s, when they were afforded little of the respect that we give them today: sometimes the poets are dismissively, and sometimes as a threat to the status quo. Mine is the only paper about prose in the whole conference. I wonder how people will take to it




  1. Dex
    Posted September 4, 2014 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Yr paper on reception or depiction of figure of war poet in 20’s novel sounds really fascinating. Hope you’ll publish or summarize it. On Aldington: read a smattering of his poetry but recall his memoir which I read years ago
    And enjoyed. No Frederic manning? Didn’t he have some poems besides his “memoir”? A London bookseller issued a catalog of a private collection he was selling on Great War poetry. Regret not picking some of the stuff up. It was a terrific collection of minor verse.

  2. Bill
    Posted September 4, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    They have always gone in cycles. No Blunden, although Fussell used him pretty much as his focal poet. No W W Gibson (who else is missing from the list on the Abbey slab? – Nichols and Read were also omitted by Kendall). And I have never quite understood why Ford M Ford’s poetry is always passed over, except that its tone doesn’t fit the lyric anguish and it is not easily anthologised (like Jones of course). And I tempted to suggest Yeats has a good claim on being the greatest non-combatant poet.

  3. Dex
    Posted September 4, 2014 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Bill: Blunden’s another great one too! Thanks for reminding me (and us). If memory serves, his poems were attached to a version or two of his memoirs. (Incl. the Penguin ed. that Fussell edited). I remember reading some of Blunden’s later scholarship (he had a biog of Shelley I think) and was slated to write a literary history for Oxford wasn’t he? Don’t think he ever did.

    • Bill
      Posted September 5, 2014 at 3:12 am | Permalink

      Yes, Undertones of War appended various war poems. He taught at Oxford for a time, certainly, although I don’t know about any history. Keith Douglas was one of his students. Oddly, the first book of Blunden’s I ever read was ‘Cricket Country’. Cricket was an interest he shared with Sassoon. I always found it rather sad how Blunden never escaped being a ‘war poet’, even down to his last poem. I think that is partly why Fussell chose him to illustrate his thesis.

      • Dex
        Posted September 5, 2014 at 3:35 am | Permalink

        I read Max Egremont (sp?) biog of Sassoon a few year back. Same author also did a study of Manning which I have. Anyway, in it is some good stuff on Blundens later work incl his tenure at a university in Japan. I don’t know if I’d want to go as far as say he never escaped his identity as a war poet but
        Maybe that’s right

  4. janevsw
    Posted September 4, 2014 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    I fully intended to register for this conference, but have had a busy summer and didn’t. Now I’m torn between regret and relief, because although it sounds wonderful I know I haven’t got the physical energy to spend a whole weekend away.

    I do hope they’ll collect the papers and publish them! May Wedderburn Cannan I would be interested to know more of – I’ve read her memoir “Grey Ghosts and Voices”.

    • Posted September 17, 2014 at 8:18 am | Permalink

      Hello Jane,

      I’m May Wedderburn Cannan’s granddaughter and presented a paper on her life at the Oxford conference. Have a look at where I am posting background information about her.


      • janevsw
        Posted September 17, 2014 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

        Thank you Clara! I should say that I also find Joanna Cannan’s “High Table” very interesting.

        Best regards,


  5. Roger
    Posted September 4, 2014 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    Drummond Allison.
    Wrong poet or wrong war?

    Aldington’s novels are “nasty”, but they are undeniably powerful. His poems are much more humane, though I don’t think there are many war poems.
    Among the noncombatants, no Housman or Yeats looks odd.

    • Bill
      Posted September 4, 2014 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

      Allison is the right poet – apparently being compared with Edward Thomas, for reasons the paper no doubt makes clear.

      The poet I always tend to link with Allison (as being the most grievous unfulfilled loss of WW1, as I believe Allison was of WW2) is, in fact, Sorley. Because Thomas was older, he was able to leave a small body of mature work, which the other two were not.

  6. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted September 5, 2014 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    I concur with our judgment of Sorley.
    But almost as grievous was the loss of Rupert Brooke. His final poem, “I strayed about the deck…,” seems to signal a complete break with his earlier, entirely idealist view of the war.

    Unlike Sorley, Brooke left some durable pre-war work. Had either one, or both, survived, our literature would almost certainly have been richer.

    (Owen was undoubtedly one of the greats, but he had Housman’s flaw – as some would call it, which was genuine mastery of a very limited number of themes. What might he have said in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s? Something interesting, no doubt.)

    • Bill
      Posted September 7, 2014 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      I rather like the quote from Harold Monro “Few people trouble to know much about poetry – but everyone takes an intelligent interest in death. It is something definite to understand about a poet, that he is dead…”. Brooke’s reputation was wholly distorted by the war sonnets and his dying. Owen could have gone any way had he lived. I suspect he might never have done any work of the same calibre again. He would certainly not have been as famous. Whether the survival of a handful of poets would have reversed the tides of modernism, I doubt, but Brooke’s importance was in his social circle as much as his actual writing. Ronald Knox was very bitter about some of the best scholars throwing themselves into a machine that could have carried on killing perfectly well without them, when they had more important things to do, which couldn’t be done by others. He viewed volunteering as a form of self-indulgence. For Brooke it undoubtedly was.

  7. Posted September 5, 2014 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    Interesting post and hope that you enjoy the conference.
    Very curious to know if poetry relating to the Great War at Sea / in the Air will get a mention. I rate the work of the more famous poets such as Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg, Sorley, Thomas, Blunden, Jones, very highly but really hope that the centenary will lead to more research into lesser known poetry.

    • Dex
      Posted September 6, 2014 at 6:51 am | Permalink

      These are all great comments. Who are some war poets who were in the navy or fighting on the sea who wrote about it in memoirs or poems? I’ve never read them — just plenty of trench poets.

      • Posted September 8, 2014 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

        Hi Dex, I have written some of my research here at the ‘Great War at Sea Poetry Project’ website.

        I can only think of Edward Hilton-Young
        ( Later Lord Kennet) who wrote both an anthology of war at sea poems ‘A Muse at Sea’ (1919) and war memoirs ‘By Sea and Land-Some Naval Doings'(1920).
        Hilton-Young’s service record included taking part in the Zeebrugge Raid of 23rd April 1918 where he lost part of his right arm whilst under fire.

        A friend of Hilton-Young’s who went missing, presumed Killed in Action in 1918 was (Miles) Jeffrey Day of the Royal Naval Air Service who wrote both about the Great War at Sea and in the Air. Hilton-Young arranged for a posthumous anthology of Day’s work to be published in 1919 -‘Poems & Rhymes’.

  8. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted September 9, 2014 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps the greatest air-war poem of the war was Yeats’s “Irish Airman.”

    Number two? I nominate the anonymous, sardonic “Dying Airman” – unless having a tune rules it out.

  9. Posted September 15, 2014 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    Indeed . The ‘Irish Airman ‘is incredible, especially as Yeats was opposed to the writing of war poetry.

  10. Bill
    Posted September 15, 2014 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    I am not sure you can describe “An Irish Airman…” as a “war poem” in any real sense, unless all elegies to the casualties of war are inevitably subsumed into the genre. I would look more to the “Meditations in Time of Civil War” or even “Easter 1916” as Yeats’s contribution to “war poetry”.

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