First World War Poems
Let us suppose that a benevolent angel and a demon were reviewing this book in tandem. The angel would explain that this is a handsome volume, which contains a selection of well-known war poems by those poets most generally conceded to be representative of World War I poetry at its finest, and a few less celebrated pieces. S/he would note that each poem appears to advantage on its own page, with no distracting notes or editorial additions of any sort. Attention would be drawn to the modest price for such a shapely and well-produced anthology. The tasteful dust-jacket, which is a reproduction of one of C.W. Nevinson’s stark and effective contemporaneous paintings, would be praised. S/he would be certain to remark that the editor is England’s poet laureate, and that he provides a succinct and pithy introduction.
The most positive praise would certainly be elicited by the fact that the editor has chosen to include, not only poems written during and just after that cataclysmic war, but also eleven poems written long after the war, but having that war for their subject. These are not flawless, to be sure. Vernon Scannell’s “Great War” is a derivative and lifeless affair: the representation of a representation, it is imagined through cliché. Consider Sassoon’s line from “Attack”: as the men go over the top, “time ticks blank and busy on their wrists.” Scannell’s version of this has the “corpses on the wire” defined by flares, as “terror ticks on wrists at zero hour.” Sassoon is drawing attention to the stark fact that some of these men no longer need time. Scannell, though, seems to have wandered into the world of James Bond, and missed the point entirely. Nevertheless the poems selected from Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley are fresh and powerful, and sit remarkably sympathetically alongside Owen, Rosenberg and Sorley. Three of these poems (Motion includes Larkin’s inevitable “MCMXIV”) are about looking at photographs from the time, and perhaps the most rewarding of all of them is Glyn Maxwell’s “My Grandfather at the Pool,” an extraordinary anatomy of the photograph of his grandfather and four friends, taken as they were about to swim, shortly before the war began. Maxwell’s grandfather alone would survive. The poetry is in the reticence:
Surely the creative move to include these later poems lifts the anthology out of the realms of the ordinary, and turns it into a more revealing and, indeed, useful volume than those commonplace ones littering our library shelves. Having said that, it would have been useful to have been provided with dates for these, and other poems. The angel’s last comment, though, would undoubtedly be along these lines: war poetry such as this represents all that is best about the human spirit under adversity, and the more anthologies that appear celebrating it the better, “lest we forget.”
The demon is, however, as they so often are, a realist. As a sceptical being, s/he has some serious objections to Motion’s collection. The selection of the war poems themselves is hardly groundbreaking, nor does it seem to indicate much effort on the part of the compiler. Most suspiciously of all, First World War Poems bears a very worrying resemblance both to the selection and indeed the sequencing of Jon Silkin’s Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (1996). At least 41 of Motion’s poems appear in Silkin’s collection, both books start with the very same poem (Thomas Hardy’s “Channel Firing”), and, astonishingly, the poets Motion has chosen in tandem with Silkin for the first quarter of his own collection appear in precisely the same order that they do in the Penguin volume. This may be partly due to their chronological ordering, but the demon hints that it looks as if Motion were lacking in originality and energy. Furthermore, Silkin’s far more comprehensive anthology has the sterling merit of including other European war poems, including some from Germany and France, and it has a careful and illuminating 62 page introduction, as opposed to Motion’s hasty 5 page effort.
Taking Brian Gardner’s venerable but still extremely helpful 1964 collection Up The Line To Death: The War Poets 1914-1918 into account, there are not a great many poems—apart of course from the modern ones—left in Motion’s anthology that do not appear in this or the Silkin collection. Edgell Rickword’s "Winter Warfare" is the most striking of Motion’s new inclusions, for here the enemy is every soldier’s. “Hauptman Kalte,” and “Colonel Cold,” wearing “tabs of rime and spurs of ice” move through No Man’s Land, “glassy eyed, with glinting heel/ stabbing those who lingered there.” Motion has also chosen seven poems by women. Some of these are not much anthologised, and most welcome is “Easter Monday,” Eleanor Farjeon’s lyrical elegy for Edward Thomas. This ends when the poetry suddenly stops, falling away into prosaic, unbearable fact: “There are three letters that you will not get.” Motion’s other honourable inclusions are six less familiar Ivor Gurney poems, reflecting the recent upturn in Gurney’s literary reputation.
In his introduction Motion piously reminds us that “waiting and worrying” was an equally important part of the war experience. But neither his selection nor his introduction really acknowledge the fact that from 1914 to 1918 in Britain, poetry did not primarily serve the function of arousing pity and horror, in the way that we are used to hearing about; it served to console the bereaved and the bemused, and not all of the poetry of consolation was insipid or reactionary. Motion tells us that “during the twentieth century […] few authors had reputations like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and the rest.” Leaving aside the question of who “the rest” are, it would have been wise of him to acknowledge that these poets were neither well-known nor widely appreciated during the war itself. Only four of Wilfred Owen’s poems were published during his lifetime. This is not to say that one wanted the volume stuffed with saccharine Georgian comfort-poetry, but Motion needed to make this important historical point clear: Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” does not do this on its own.
The majority of the poetry in this anthology, then, is exactly what you’d expect: Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” and “Anthem for Doomed Youth;” Sassoon’s “The General” and “They;” Rosenberg’s “Break of Day in the Trenches” and “Returning, We Hear the Larks.” Despite angelic promptings, you might be wiser to invest first in Silkin’s Penguin anthology, along with a copy of Paul Fussell’s unsurpassed explanatory Great War and Modern Memory; the demon suggests Andrew Motion’s First World War Poems might ultimately be a cynical marketing exercise. Motion claims in his introduction that “a new anthology is necessary” in order to “re-present the poems as living things.” It’s hard to see quite how this anthology is doing that, for these poems have never died. Here is the last quatrain of Edmund Blunden’s “Concert Party: Busseboom,” in which the soldiers pause, about return to the trenches: