Why teach Jessie Pope?

Jessie Pope is no longer a household name, but during World War One she was one of the most widely read poets. After decades in obscurity she has re-emerged to become a fixture on the English literature syllabus, but for all the wrong reasons.

That’s the beginning of The WW1 Poet Kids are Taught to Dislike, a good new article on the BBC website. It discusses the strange fact that Jessie Pope, a light and chirpy versifier, is the third most taught poet in Great War literature classes, after Owen and Sassoon.

Marek Pruszewicz, the author of the article, quotes me on the subject, and also Anne-Marie Einhaus, who explains very well why Jessie is so popular:

My theory is when you are teaching, especially at GCSE level, what you need is a clear message,” says Einhaus. “So you travel the journey from jingoism to total disillusionment and Jessie Pope fits well with that. It’s particularly handy to beat her with the stick of disillusionment.

Update:

Here’s the graph that shows the classroom popularity (with teachers if not students) of WW1 writers. It’s from Ann-Marie Einhaus’s article in The Use of English for Summer 2014. Click it to enlarge.

poetstoteach

The next question, of course, is – Why teach Michael Morpurgo?

6 Comments

  1. Posted May 2, 2015 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    I agree with Ms Einhaus who expresses ‘the journey’ succinctly. Is it an observation or a criticism? The answer takes one down two very different paths.

  2. Posted May 2, 2015 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    To an old-fashioned close reader such as myself, Jessie Pope is a rather better poet than, say, Henry Newbolt, and her “patriotic” verse is rather more distinguished than that of, say Laurence Binyon. I wouldn’t make any great claims for her, but her employment as a “pro-” war poet, to juxtapose with the “anti-” war Wilfred Owen, is a depressingly silly practice. Good poetry is not about black-and-white “messages”: it is about the intelligent exploration of language to open up multiple meanings and perspectives. The way war poetry is taught does a disservice to poets of all persuasions (and, ironically, makes it much easier for “revisionist” war historians to argue that negative perceptions of the war are somehow the result of the literary intelligentsia imposing their minority and unhistorical views on the gullible public . . .).

    • Jonathan Lighter
      Posted May 2, 2015 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

      Have we any reason to think that Pope’s naive recruiting verses were thought of by her many fans as anything more than innocent diversion? Or that they generally believed them to be of any particular value?

      Surely Newbolt and Binyon did better than “The Call”:

      Who’s for the game – the biggest that’s played,
      The red crashing game of a fight?…

      Who would much rather come back with a crutch
      Than lie low and be out of the fun?
      Come along lads….

      While jingoes favor war as the best remedy they don’t usually describe the loss of a leg as “fun.”

      Owen was right to be outraged by the printing of millions of copies of such stuff, he may have overestimated their influence.

      And, of course, he deleted the draft dedication that made her name immortal among specialists – if nowhere else.

  3. Bill
    Posted May 3, 2015 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    The main reason for teaching Jessie Pope (and Vera Brittain) is that they are women and it became increasingly important to identify examples of a female response. Sadly, this has meant the erasing of Brooke and Grenfell as the token representatives of initial enthusiasm for the War (although the use their mothers made of their memories would have been an interesting example of female response). Since the Great War is now taught as attitude rather than literature, the actual quality of the work doesn’t much matter.

    • Jonathan Lighter
      Posted May 7, 2015 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

      Of course, Vera Brittain’s superb memoir doesn’t need much assistance from Jessie Pope to exemplify a female response.

      Pope’s superficiality and obliviousness to the real world weren’t specifically feminine characteristics, and there’s something considerably off about identifying her as representative of a “female response.”

      An idiot response, yes. But its pedagogical value as such seems limited.

  4. Bill
    Posted May 8, 2015 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    In effect, Pope was “chosen” by Owen himself, which is doubtless why she fulfills a role which could equally be taken by a much better writer such as May Cannan. But undoubtedly, the fact Pope is a woman partly explains why she is so high on the list. She doesn’t have to be feminine or “representative” (although her popularity in a sense makes her representative and worthy of study). There was undoubtedly concern around the apparent “relevance” of the male, upper-class poets. Gradually memoirs and modern fiction have started replacing much of the poetry studied, because it isn’t poetry that is being taught but the study of social attitude. It’s a pity, perhaps, because the War Poets were always a good gateway to reading other poetry.


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