The poetry of George Willis

Having become interested in the war poems of George Willis, I have now acquired a copy of his Any Soldier to his Son. I have also taken a look at his The Philosophy of Speech at the Internet Archive.

The poetry book is a small but nicely made volume (publisher George Allen and Unwin), with a neat cover decoration attributed to C.R.W. Nevinson. There are six poems more or less in the style of ‘Any Soldier to his Son’, plus eleven others in a more conventional mode. The soldier poem I like best is ‘Employment base depot, 1917’, about the ragtag group of soldiers who for physical or psychological reasons were kept working at the base, and were not sent near the line:

We’ve a varied stock of ailments, we’ve some pretty things in scars,
You could stock a fancy-goods shop with our ribbons and our bars;
We’ve bullets in our kidneys; we’ve shrapnel in our lungs,
We’ve windows in our faces, and slices off our tongues;
We’ve some fancy complications both curious and rare,
From trench-feet in our fingers to shell-shock in our hair.

The metre of these soldier poems is that of Kipling’s ‘Tommy’. I have read a good number of great War poems that are indebted to Kipling; few carry it off as well as Willis.

The other poems are a mixed bunch. ‘By Green Envelope’ is another war poem,but in a very different style. It is addressed to his wife, imagining that she may worry he may find her changed after his absence at the war:

Have I loved you all these years,
Loved your happiness and tears,
Loved you slender and a maiden,
Loved you large and heavy laden,
Loved you naked, loved you dressed,
In your oldest, or your best:
Loved you near and loved you far,
And not loved you as you are?

Poems later in the collection are less successful. Thou they express personal feeling, and often pain, they tend to revert to a more conventionally ‘poetic’ language, with ‘ere’ and ‘twain’ and the like. Willis was alive to the problem of style, and in The Philosophy of Speech considers Kipling’s use of the demotic:

There are, of course, circumstances in which slang in literature is right and proper, and that is when an author is speaking in character. Thus, when Rudyard Kipling writes :

To stand and be still at the Birkenhead drill, is a damned tough bullet to chew,

he is using a metaphor quite natural in the mouth of an able-bodied marine. If, however, Mr. Kipling had been speaking in his own character and had written : ” This command appeared to the men a damned tough bullet to chew,” he would have committed a manifest error of taste.

Imagining himself in character, and writing in the demotic ballady style of the soldier poems, lets Wuillis free to be both exact and picturesque. Too often in the other poems, his verse becomes respectable, abstract, and rather dull.

The Philosophy of Speech (1919, also published by Allen and Unwin) is an enjoyable book, showing a great deal of thought about language, and a profound interest in words and how they work.

He anticipates later theoreticians of language in giving speech primacy over writing, and argues strongly that local dialects are more vivid than the Oxford and Cambridge linguistic manners propagated by schools:

There is nothing grammatically wrong in the dialects of t he poor, or grammatically right in the dialect of the rich. ” The grammatical correctness or incorrectness of an expression,” says Professor Sayce, ” depends upon its intelligibility, that is to say, upon the ordinary use and custom of a particular language. Whatever is so unfamiliar as not to be generally understood is also ungrammatical. In other words, it is contrary to the habit of the language as determined by common use and consent. . . . Thus, in the dialect of West Somerset, thee is the nominative of the second personal pronoun ; while in cultivated English the plural accusative you has come to represent a nominative singular. Both are grammatically correct within the sphere of their respective dialects but no further. You would be as ungrammatical in West Somerset as thee in classical English, and both would have been equally ungrammatical in Early English.

He protests against teaching English children the grammar of English in the way that the grammars of foreign languages are taught, as though they did not already own the language:

One hour of every school week is usually spent in teaching a science called English Grammar. As a matter of fact, there is no such science. What is usually comprised under that name is simply a heap of intellectual refuse composed of the decayed remnants of theoretical logic mixed with the dry bones of practical linguistic, severed from the structure which they were intended to support : a veritable nursery of sciolism, pedantry, false accuracy, and all the race of intellectual maggots. […] Let us, then, banish this subject from our National Schools for ever and ever, and let us put in its place the study of Greek Mythology.

This attitude would become orthodoxy among educators in the 1960s, and children were freed from the tedium of clause analysis to be encouraged (by the better teachers anyway) to work creatively to develop their own expression in the language that was already theirs.

In the 1980s, some teachers realised that this was not always working too well, especially in London, where a class of thirty might contain children with fifteen different home languages between them. It was no good expecting those who spoke Urdu, or Turkish, or Gujurati or Somali with their parents to have an instinctive knowledge of the way English works. Therefore schemes were devised that used second language techniques, and these proved successful. So much so that they were installed in the national Curriculum as the literacy strategy, and sixties-educated parents are bemused by their children struggling with homework about determiners and adverbial openers. Well, children will survive it. They survive most things. But I hope they are learning Greek Mythology, too.

So who was George Willis? An educated man, and a scholar capable of individual thought. But where does he come from? Was he an officer identifying with the private soldiers in his best poems, or was he, like Frederic Manning, a gentleman-ranker? Was he one of those damaged men kept for base duties?

And what happened to him in the 1920s? Maybe Ancestry will have some answers.


  1. Posted October 16, 2022 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Thanks, George. More enlightening perspectives, and new (for me)poets, as usual. Very much appreciated. I live in Western Australia.

  2. Posted October 16, 2022 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Food for thought, and I endorse Prof. Sayce’s comments… although personally I’d take Norse over Greek Mythology, as more relevant culturally.

Post a Comment

%d bloggers like this: