Novelists on War Poets

This is a version of a talk I have given on several occasions. I thought it was about time it found its way onto the blog:

‘I too am a Murderer’: Representations of War Poets in Fictions of the 1920s.

The war poetry of 1914-18 is today regarded very highly, and the poets are often awarded an unusual degree of reverence . Andrew Motion has called the canon of Great War poetry a ‘sacred national text’. Yet back in the 1920s, war poets, and especially poets of protest, were sometimes regarded with suspicion, as is shown by their representations in fiction and drama. They were not exempt from parody. In 1919 J.B. Morton published The Barber of Putney, a novel featuring a heroic soldier poet, but in 1920 he produced this parody, which combines the onomatopoeia of Robert Nichols, the righteousness of Sassoon and the modernist dislocations of the Sitwells.

Flash, crump, crater, and bang,
Blood, guts, bodies and brains,
That’s the way to do it,
For he’s a jolly good fellow. At home they smoke coronas,
And applaud leering girls…
And ogle twice a night…
God! If I had a four-point-five! Flash, crump, flick, and whirr,
General’s singing – “Give ‘em Hell!”
Bill’s dead and Joe’s dead
Dick’s gone west and Alf’s gone mad,
General’s wife eating quail at the Ritz
With a neutral count. (from Gorgeous Poetry, 1920)

J. B. Morton would later became ‘Beachcomber’, the celebrated comic writer and parodist of the Daily Express. In this parody, he is suggesting that the war poem has become formulaic, a collection of clichés, a point also made by Gideon, a character in Rose Macaulay’s 1920 novel, Potterism:

Everyone knows that school of poetry by heart now; of course it was particularly fashionable just after the war. [….] Anyone can do it. One takes some dirty, horrible incident or sight of the battle-front and describes it in loathsome detail, and then, by way of contrast, describes some fat and incredibly bloodthirsty woman or middle-aged clubman at home, gloating over the glorious war. I always thought it a great bore, and sentimental at that. But it was the thing for a time, and people seemed to be impressed by it… Gideon refuses to be impressed even by the pious language of reverent mourning: ‘it’s a queer thing how “fallen” in the masculine means killed in the war, and in the feminine given over to a particular kind of vice’.

In another Macaulay novel, Told by an Idiot (1926), Roger, an ex-soldier, writes war poems, which his mother dislikes:

“I simply can’t read the poetry you write in these days, Roger… It’s become too terribly beastly and nasty and corpsey.”
“Unfortunately, mother,” Roger explained kindly, “war is rather beastly and nasty, you know. And a bit corpsey, too.”
“My dear boy, I know that; I’m not an idiot. Don’t, for goodness’ sake talk to me in that superior way, it reminds me of your father. All I say is, why write about corpses? There’ve always been plenty of them, people who’ve died in their beds of diseases. You never used to write about them.”

For young men like Roger, the sudden transition from school or university to battlefield had been a quick and shocking education in the corpsiness of life. Middle-aged women like his mother would have gained her knowledge more steadily. Perhaps she knew of the wartime controversy when it was revealed that in 1915, the terrible year of Second Ypres and the Battle of Loos, there were fewer British soldiers who had died on the battlefield than there were British babies who had died in infancy.

The great divide in writing about the first world war is between those who see the War as separate and different from the years that came before and after, and those who see in the War a continuation of, and even an intensification of, tendencies already present in peacetime. Roger is in the former camp; his mother, and Rose Macaulay, are in the second. Roger replies to his mother’s point about disease rather haughtily:

“I suppose one’s object is to destroy the false glamour of war. There’s no glamour about disease.”
“Glamour, indeed! There you go again with that terrible nonsense. I don’t meet any of these people you talk about who think there’s glamour in war.…”

Roger’s mother refuses to be impressed by war poetry, but in Huntingtower of 1922, John Buchan suggests that it could be disturbing.

He invents the pretentious poet John Heritage, whose collection is called ‘Whorls’, an obvious reference to the Sitwells’ magazine ‘Wheels’, and the examples of his verse that we are given include some very Sitwellian comparisons:

Sunflowers, tall Grenadiers, ogle the roses’ short-skirted ballet.


The painted gauze of the stars flutters in a fold of twilight crape

Dickson McCunn, the puzzled Scottish grocer who reads the poems decides that: The trick seemed to be to describe nature in metaphors mostly drawn from music-halls and haberdashers’ shops, and, when at a loss, to fall to cursing.

But Heritage’s book also includes trench poems that linger “lovingly over sights and smells which everyone is aware of, but most people contrive to forget.”

Several trench poets were included in Wheels, but the one best fitting Buchan’s description must be Wilfred Owen. The first of Owen’s poems included in the magazine was ‘The Show’, with its disease imagery, its depiction of the armies as cannibalistic caterpillars, and its evocation of the stench of the trenches

(And smell came up from those foul openings
As out of mouths, or deep wounds deepening.)

It was Yeats who expressed a ‘distaste’ for Owen (‘all blood, dirt & sucked sugar stick’); Buchan seems to have shared that distaste.

In Huntingtower, Heritage soon becomes involved in a wildly romantic adventure, protecting a beautiful princess from her enemies. At the height of his adventure, when abominably cold, he searches his pockets for kindling, and finds his book. No longer the man he was, he ‘eyes the book with intense disfavour’, rips it in two and uses it to get the fire going. He is cured of disenchantment

Not Owen, however, but Sassoon was the war poet who most troubled the fiction-writers of the 1920s. The first fictional response to his career that I have found was a story that appeared in wartime, a response to his wartime statement of protest.

The text of this was first published in the Bradford Observer in July 1917. So far as I know, we have very few public reactions to this. The Times and other papers reported Lees-Smith’s repetition of it in parliament, generally without comment. The left-wing press showed less interest than he might have hoped, though the Socialist Leader and the Herald mentioned him favourably,

To add to this meagre list of responses I am going to I am going to suggest – rather tentatively – Valour by Warwick Deeping, a long story – a novella really – that appeared in September 1917 in The New Magazine a popular periodical devoted to fiction and published by Cassell’s. It is about a headstrong young officer whose letter of protest is, like Sassoon’s, printed in his local newspaper.

If that story did indeed reflect in some way the Sassoon case, the publishing timescale seems very short, but I think it is possibel. The author was a very prolific writer, and one who wrote very quickly.

Warwick Deeping is one of those best-selling authors famous in their time who disappear from literary history. Insofar as he appears in respectable literary accounts of the inter-war period, when his sales were immense, it is generally for negative reasons, to do with the snobberies and prejudices that infect his novels. He wrote an immense amount. In a writing career of forty-three years he produced seventy-two novels and over two hundred stories. There’s a slightly eccentric American who claims to have read all of them. Deeping even managed to keep producing stories regularly during the war years, when he was a soldier.

Deeping’s greatest success was Sorrell and Son, of 1925, the story of an ex-officer reduced to the position of hotel porter, who strives to bring up his son as a gentleman, but in 1917 that success was still far in the future. He was a man who had studied to be a doctor, but had given up the medical profession after a year, to become an author, mostly of historical romances, which he produced in sufficient quantity to earn himself a living.

Would he have had time to write a long story between the publication of Sassoon’s letter at the end of July and whatever the deadline was for a September magazine? I’m speculating that he might have done.

In 1914 he had enlisted in the Army, and went, as a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps, to Gallipoli first, and later to Egypt and France. It is on the Gallipoli peninsula that the most significant events of his 1917 story Valour, take place.

Warwick Deeping in uniform.

(By the way, he thought enough of the story to expand it to novel length in 1918. Here is a publisher’s advertisement for the novel.)

Deeping’s hero is Pierce Hammersley, an individualistic and sensitive young man who fits badly into the Army. As a second lieutenant he is sent to Gallipoli, to a unit facing difficult conditions, whose commanding officer, Colonel Barnack is a ruthless and intolerant martinet who takes against him.

His letters home about the Gallipoli operation are frankly critical, and presumably express the opinion of Deeping, who had been there as a medic two years before he wrote this story:

Everything had been mismanaged. Men were being sacrificed to no purpose. The whole adventure was a cynical political gamble.

Sentiments like these are very rarely found in popular fiction of the War years. As the story’s authorial voice comments:

From a soldier’s point of view the letters were scandalous, full of bitter truths that were not ripe for telling.

For a story of 1917 the depiction of Hammersley’s superior officer, Colonel Barnack, is remarkably unsympathetic, and it became more so when the story was expanded into a full-length novel the following year:

Barnack had immense power, the power of sending men to their death, and nothing softened his fanatical cult of duty. His juniors were afraid of him. There was a horrible suggestion of obsequiousness, of a haste to propitiate the great man. The whole business reminded Hammersly of an Oriental tyranny…

Finally, showing considerable moral courage, Pierce rebels, and shortly before an attack refuses an order. He is court-martialled for cowardice and stripped of his commission.

He goes home to England, and defiantly writes a letter to his local paper declaring

I have every right to be proud of my experiences; they have taught me the infamous and cynical incompetence of those in authority.

The Gallipoli chapters are very striking, and surprising for 1918. Deeping is writing from his own experience, and taking advantage of the unwritten convention of the war years that allowed those who had experienced them to write about horrors (while civilians confined themselves to tales of heroism). Taken out of context, this section of the book reads like an episode from one of the “disillusioned” war novels of ten years later – it describes the horrors and terrors of trench life, the meanness and arbitrariness from those in authority, and punishment for cowardice. I don’t know of any other book published during the actual war years that introduces these issues so graphically.

Pierce goes home, still proud and indignant, but finds that Scarshott does not appreciate what he has done. He writes a defiant letter to the local paper damning the Army and the war effort, but this is regarded as petulance and he is shunned and ridiculed.

The second half of the book is a retreat from the outspokenness of Gallipoli section. Pierce, having made his protest, comes to realise that the communal war effort is more important than his own individual pride. He enlists as a private, is under the charge of a competent and caring officer, and proves himself as a soldier. Like so many fictional heroes of wartime popular novels he wins the V.C. The book began by daringly exploring territory generally off-limits to popular writers of 1917, but it retreats into extreme conventionality. As a work of literature, the book is finally disappointing, but to someone like myself, studying the fiction of the war, it’s a fascinating example of a writer struggling to fit his own experience into a generic fictional pattern that finds it hard to accommodate the reality if war. And to readers in 1917 the story would have had powerful resonances. It may be forced to a conventional conclusion, but the first half has dared to say things that not many expressed at that time.

Pierce Hammersley is very unlike Sassoon, and his protest is a martter of personal grievance, without wider political deimension. Yet there remains the coincidence that the only high-profile statement of rebellion by an officer is followed so soon by a story and novel that centre on such a statement. I would like to think that reading Sassoon’s statement gave Deeping the confidence to write about his own misgivings about the Army, and liberated him to write a story much better than most of his output, even though he did not have the daring to follow his feelings to their logical conclusion.

The ex-soldier is often presented in writing of the twenties as a disturbing and destabilising element in post-war society, the enemy of complacency and idealism who has seen through morality and social convention. Arnold Bennett’s Charlie Prohack (in Mr Prohack, 1922)is an example. Outside fiction, one thinks of Sassoon telling Robert Graves that it was suicidal stupidity and credulity to identify oneself in any way with good form or gentlemanliness.

A poet is often seen as another kind of outsider, and a dangerously articulate one. Put the soldier and the poet together in one person, and you have an even greater potential threat to postwar society.

John Galsworthy and Siegfried Sassoon met in 1918. Sassoon liked him:

At our first meting his reserved but shiningly sympathetic manner made me – partly owing to politeness – so talkative that I felt more like an impulsively informative nephew than a contributor to the next number of Reveille.

What did Galsworthy make of Sassoon? I’m not sure, but The White Monkey of 1924 presents the dangerous soldier-poet Wilfrid Desert. We are told that Desert never spoke of the War, but that he could have said:

“I lived so long with horror and death; I saw men so in the raw; I put hope of anything out of my mind so utterly, that I can never more have the faintest respect for theories, promises, conventions, moralities, and principles [….] Illusion is off. No religion and no philosophy will satisfy me–words, all words. […] I am dangerous…”

Desert’s poetry is oppositional. Reading the proofs of his new collection, ‘Counterfeits’, Desert’s friend Michael Mont’s reaction is that they are ‘Bitter as quinine!’ he feels ‘The unrest in them–the yearning behind the words!’ Galsworthy gives us just one example of Desert’s poetry, a poem of protest, imagining a Cockney deserter talking back to the officers at his court-martial:


“See ‘ere! I’m myde o’ nerves and blood
The syme as you, not meant to be
Froze stiff up to me ribs in mud.
You try it, like I ‘ave, an’ see!

‘Aye, you snug beauty brass hats, when
You stick what I stuck out that d’y,
An’ keep yer ruddy ‘earts up–then
You’ll learn, maybe, the right to s’y:

“‘Take aht an’ shoot ‘im in the snow,
Shoot ‘im for cowardice! ‘E who serves
His King and Country’s got to know
There’s no such bloody thing as nerves.'”

This is not a good poem. Its use of dialect seems condescending, and it gestures towards Sassoon’s kind of bitter irony without anything like his talent for the clinching and convincing rhyme. Desert proves his lack of respect for ‘theories, promises, conventions, moralities, and principles’ by attempting to run off with Fleur, the wife of Michael Mont (though he was Mont’s friend, and had been the best man at his wedding). The elopement is averted, but not because Desert has seen the wrongness of his actions. He is represented as volatile, at war with himself. The word ‘sudden’ is often applied to him, and it is a sudden decision that towards the end of the novel sends him away from London, to Jericho and the Middle East, and deserts whose uncompromising emptiness matches the vacuum inside himself.

Galsworthy brings Desert back from the desert in the eighth novel of the Forsyte series, Flowering Wilderness of 1932. He is still, we are told, ‘Unhappy from deep inward disharmony, as though a good angel and a bad were for ever seeking to fire each other out.’ Once again he sets his sights on a member of the Forsyte family, a young woman called Dinny. Their relationship is complicated by the rumours that have followed him from the east. While in Darfur, in the Sudan, he had been kidnapped by fanatical Muslims. They had ordered him to renounce Christianity and convert to Islam, or be shot.

Desert was not a Christian, and, as Dinny tries to explain to her father:

[T]he war left him very bitter about the way lives are thrown away, simply spilled out like water at the orders of people who don’t know what they’re about [….] Anyway, it has left Wilfrid with a horror of wasting life, and the deepest distrust of all shibboleths and beliefs. He only had about five minutes to decide in. It wasn’t cowardice, it was just bitter scorn that men can waste each other’s lives for beliefs that to him seem equally futile.

The novel makes frequent reference to a Victorian poem, ‘Theology in Extremis’, by Sir Alfred Comyn Lyall. It’s a dramatic monologue set in the time of the Indian Mutiny.

Sir Alfred Comyns Lyall

The poem’s speaker is an English captive of fanatical Muslims, who declare that unless he renounces his faith and converts to Islam, he will be killed. The man has no firm religious faith:

Yet I could be silent and cheerfully die,
If I were only sure God cared;
If I had faith, and were only certain
That light is behind that terrible curtain.

He realises that if he accepts death, it will be for no good result; his story will never be told. Yet die he must:

Yet for the honour of English race,
May I not live or endure disgrace.

Lyall’s poem expresses religious doubt but patriotic certainty. Wilfrid Desert doubts religion, but he also doubts patriotism, and the concept of honour; he goes through with an insincere conversion. Desert’s story becomes public knowledge, largely because he has published his own version of events in a poem called ‘The Leopard’. There is a satirical edge to Galsworthy’s presentation of some of the upper-class reactions to Desert’s actions: The individual Englishman in the East is looked up to as a man who isn’t to be rattled, who keeps his word, and sticks by his own breed.” and “A man [….] ought to keep his form better than that, even if he is a poet.” Galsworthy acknowledges that most of the younger generation would not care about a renunciation at gunpoint – a point made more forcibly by the Manchester Guardian review of the novel:

But Galsworthy is asking serious questions for the 1930s: what will replace Victorian Imperial certainties? Can scepticism be enough of a creed for people running an empire? And a very serious question for us today: How should an unbelieving generation behave in the face of violent religious extremism?

The novel’s real conflict is within Desert himself. The war poet is different from the Bright Young Things of the post-war generation whose scepticism comes from a careless feeling that nothing matters enough to make a fuss about. At the beginning of the book, Desert was first seen staring at the statue of Marshal Foch at Victoria, eyes fixed on the statue with real intensity of admiration. Despite setting himself against militarism, he is still a soldier.

It is not social condemnation that eventually takes him away from London forever, this time to Siam and the far east, but his confusion about who he is, which makes him unable to relate to British society.

It is Desert’s passions and contradictions that make him attractive to the much younger Dinny. At the time of the war-books boom of the late twenties and early thirties, ex-soldiers who told uncomfortable truths about war frequently became heroes and role models for younger people.

This is a theme explored in Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play, Rope. Maybe you know the 1948 Alfred Hitchcock film based on the play, in which two young men commit a murder just to show that they can, and then invite the victim’s friends and relatives to a party in a room dominated by the large trunk in which the body is hidden.

In that film James Stewart plays – not altogether convincingly – the young men’s intellectual mentor, Rupert Cadell, a philosophy professor with an enthusiasm for Nietzsche; he is the young men’s hero and mentor, but later becomes their nemesis.

Hamilton disliked Hitchcock’s treatment of his work, describing it forcefully as ‘sordid and practically meaningless balls.’ In the original play, Rupert Cadell is not a philosophy professor; he is a war poet.An elaborate stage direction describes his appearance:

He is of medium build and about twenty-nine. He is a little foppish in dress and appearance, and this impression is increased by the very exquisite walking stick which he carries indoors as well as out. He is lame in the right leg. He is enormously affected in speech and carriage. [….] His affectation almost verges on effeminacy, and can be very irritating, but he has a very disarming habit, every now and then, of retrieving the whole thing with an extraordinary frank, open smile.

Ernest Milson as Rupert Cadell, 1929.

Hamilton here is coding the character as homosexual in ways that would get past the theatrical censor, and there is also a homosexual subtext to the relationship of the two young murderers. A biography of Hamilton says that he read Sassoon and Owen in the early twenties. Does this combination of disillusionment and homosexuality hint at Sassoon? Sassoon was not flamboyantly camp like Carvel, but his lover Stephen Tennant was rarely seen without make-up. This sort of fact that would have been common gossip in the circles Hamilton frequented; the two could be conflated here.

Cadell is an alien in post-war society. Invited to the rather odd party, his conversation is a mixture of merciless put-downs and flights of paradox designed to discomfort the bourgeois (and he also dissociates himself from the two young men who imitate his post-war nihilism). When murder becomes a subject of discussion, he says:

One gentleman murders another on a back alley in London for, let us say, […] the gold fillings in his teeth, and all society shrieks out for revenge on the miscreant. They call that murder. But when the entire youth and manhood of a whole nation rises up to slaughter the entire youth and manhood of another, not even for the gold fillings in each other’s teeth, then society condones the outrage and calls it war.

He claims therefore that as an ex-soldier he too is a murderer, and cannot in consistency disapprove of killer.

Is he sincere or striking an attitude? His facade is so artificial that it is unclear what he really believes. The play’s action consists of his growing realisation that the two young men have killed their friend, and his self-discovery as the man who will expose them and turn them over for punishment. They have taken his facade of nihilism literally, and in their shallow stupidity have acted on it. They have assumed Cadell’s pose of cynical superiority without the experiences that have given him the right to it.

As in the case of Buchan’s John Heritage, being put to the test brings out Cadell’s true nature; he fights and defeats the arrogant young murderers, and hands them over to the police.

In various ways these writers represent the war poet as an outsider, a disorienting threat to post-war society. In Galsworthy’s novel and Hamilton’s play, the threat is, in different ways, finally dealt with, and order is restored. But reader and audience have been shown that it is a fragile order, and the soldier poet, the man with cruel experience of life, and also with the insight to understand it and the ability to express it in disturbing ways, is the crucial critic of twenties society.

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