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Poetry of the First World War


Edited by and with an Introduction by Marcus Clapham


London: CRW Publishing Ltd., 2013

Hardcover. 286pp. ISBN 978-1909621008. £9.99


Reviewed by Jane Potter

Oxford Brookes University


One might ask, 'why another war anthology?' The market for books about the First World War is seemingly saturated in this, only the first of four centenary years. Huge numbers of books, from edited collections of poetry, life-writing and fiction to trade and academic histories of 1914-18 and its impact, have been published or in some cases re-published over the past twelve months alone. What makes this edition different?  The answer lies in the raison d'être of the Collector's Library of which it is a part.  An imprint of CRW Publishing, The Collector's Library is made up of classic works of literature, which accordingly to its website, is 'designed to appeal to the book-lover', with endpapers, gilt edges, satin ribbon markers, in a 'handy-size' that 'can be slipped into the pocket, handbag or briefcase'.  The format is this anthology's key selling point: concise, beautifully produced, portable.  An anthology to dip in and out of—or to read cover to cover. (It can be purchased singly or in a boxed set that includes Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That, and Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong.)  But its contents also recommend it. Marcus Clapham provides a remarkably concise Introduction that in nine pages manages to set the historical and literary contexts of the poems in an engaging, well-informed way.  There is no claim here to be comprehensive: Clapham rightly points out how the 'nearly seventy poets in this anthology' actually 'represent only a very small proportion of whose who wrote about the war' [3].  The anthology is intended as 'a taster of the wide variety of poetry produced during the First World War' and aims 'to introduce the reader to that variety and to encourage further reading of many poets represented here.' [13] 

What accounts for the outpouring of verse? In practical terms, the educational reforms of the 19th century 'produced a remarkably literate population' and in an age before multi-media, entertainment 'consisted largely of reading and music' [3]. As the events of late 1914 unfolded, writers responded in many ways from 'sardonic parodies that combine church and music hall antecedents' [4] to the romantic and patriotic verse, now mostly associated with Rupert Brooke.  'Trench life was hellish for all sides' [8], Clapham reminds us, but his focus in this anthology is largely on the British experience and  poems that communicate the mud and squalor of the Western Front, the ironies, the pathos, and what Wilfred Owen called, 'the Pity' of war.  That many returning soldiers were unable and/or unwilling to 'discuss the reality of war with those they loved' [12], makes their recourse to poetry as an outlet for 'articulating the fear, disgust, horror, pity, frustration, and bleak hopelessness' as well as the black humour war inspired, all the more intriguing.

The anthology does not offer a chronological perspective has some have, for instance,  Dominic Hibberd and John Onions's The Winter of the World (2007). Rather, it is organised alphabetically by the poets' surnames, which allows the reader to dip in and out of the volume and encounter the poetic reactions individually, without emphasis on particular historic battles or events beyond those mentioned in the titles or stanzas.  The biographies that are included at end are, like the Introduction, finely tuned and concise, and many are shocking in such brevity since many of the men were killed in the war. 

In this book we will find the 'canonical' poets: Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Gurney, Edward Thomas, Edmund Blunden alongside those that have captured the public imagination, if not a lasting critical engagement:  Laurence Binyon, John MacCrae, Jessie Pope.  The inclusion of Rudyard Kipling goes some way to rehabilitating a poet who has been unfairly maligned as the epitome of jingoism.  As Clapham states, 'Kipling's work took on a darker tone after the death of his 18-year-old son John (Jack) at the Battle of Loos in 1915' [269], his 'Epitaphs' and 'My Boy Jack' being moving examples. Women are represented not just by Jessie Pope but also by Winifred Letts, Charlotte Mew, Margaret Postgate Colenot a vast number, certainly, but their poems fit well with others in this collection. (And it is perhaps best that Clapham avoided the thorny issue of women's war poetryanother volume is needed to illuminate and analyse that body of material.)

Most intriguing in this anthology are the poems by less-familiar, now largely forgotten names. Hugely influential in the modernist movement, T.E. Hulme enlisted in 1914 and was later killed by shellfire in 1917.  His poem 'Trenches: St Eloi' is Imagist to its corestark, pared down to its essential elements, uncompromising, with its lines:


            Men walk as on Piccadilly,

            Making paths in the dark,

            Through scattered dead horses,

            Over a dead Belgian's body.

Thus Owen and Sassoon were not the only poets to depict the terrible consequences of war.  Other too do not shirk from horror: Charles Walter Blackall speaks of a trench 'like a muddy, bloody drain' ('Attack'); 'the worms had got his brains' and 'rats ate his thumbs' in Edgell Rickword's 'Trench Poets'; the body of 'A Soldier' described by T.P. Cameron Wilson, 'lay/In a red ruin of blood and guts and bone'.  Reacting to the many memorial volumes of verse published to commemorate the ‘fallen’ during the early years of the war Arthur Graeme West, later killed in 1917, exclaimed


God! How Ihate you, you young cheerful men,

Whose pious poetry blossoms on your graves

As soon as you are in them, nurtured up

By the salt of your corruption, and the tears

Of mothers, local vicars, college deans,

And flanked by prefaces and photographs

From all your minor poet friends—the fools—

West pulls no punches when he contrasts youthful exuberance with ‘the huddled dead […] hung in the rusting wire’, a soldier’s ‘head/Smashed like an egg-shell, and the warm grey brain/Spattered all bloody on the parados’. 

While Blunden, Gurney and Thomas can be considered the consummate poets of the landscape and chroniclers of the destruction wrought on it by war, others such as Leslie Coulson also poignantly conveyed the contrast between the beauty of nature and the wasteland that the Western Front became. In 'The Rainbow', the speaker, crouching in a trench, realises that in 'cloudless sky', 'A brown lark soars in song./Through the tortured air,/Rent by the shrapnel's flare,/Over the troubled dead...'

Tender poems that acknowledge the suffering of those at home are here too. Ewart Alan Mackintosh's 'To My Sister', anticipates the grief and loneliness of the women left to mourn ('I shall be dead and happy/And you will live and weep.')something also captured by female poet-memoirists, such as May Wedderburn Cannan and Vera Brittain.  Moreover, poets anticipated the world after the war, and in most cases realised it in stark and ironic terms, as in Charlotte Mew's 'Cenotaph' and Philip Johnstone's 'High Wood'.

Not all of the poems in this anthology can be considered technically brilliant: sing-song rhythm and metre as well as clichéd language demonstrate that while verse has meaning and purpose for those who write it, it will not always be remembered as great poetry.  But by including such poems, alongside those by Owen and others, Clapham shows not only how poetry was a dominant genre during the First World War, but why the canonical poets come to be canonical. It is their mastery of the techniques of poetry, its music and cadences, combined with the ability to realise in words the  pathos and horror that single them out for lasting analysis and remembrance. It is perhaps a little ironic that being alphabetically organised, the anthology ends with W.B. Yeats. Not only does he call  for 'A poet's mouth' to 'be silent' in 'On Being Asked for a War Poem', but he famously declared that Owen, now arguably the best of his generation, was 'unworthy of the poets' corner of a country newspaper'.  Sometimes great poets get it wrong.


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