Does It Matter?

A Destroyer in Heavy Sea from HMS Melampus by Philip Connard , Imperial War Museum ref 392

With regard to Great War poetry there have been some interesting moves to get beyond the ‘Top Twelve’ approach : Twelve years ago Jon Stallworthy’s ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth- Twelve Soldier Poets of the First World War’ was published and a glowing review in ‘The Independent’ describes the work as Movingly blends selections of poetry with commentary and documents I have the 2005 edition endorsed by the Imperial War Museum. Yes, it’s beautifully designed.

The poets concerned are Rupert Brooke, Julian Grenfell, Charles Sorley, Francis Ledwidge, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Edmund Blunden, Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg, David Jones. Six of the poets died in action. Brooke died of a disease whilst serving, Gurney’s mental health condition never recovered from taking part in the War and died in 1937 after spending years in an asylum. Blunden, Graves, Jones, and Sassoon survived to grow old.

In 2014 Max Egremont’s ‘Some Desperate Glory- The First World War the Poets Knew’ has adopted the same dreary ‘Soldier Poets’ approach and features a ‘Top Eleven’. Sassoon, Owen, Blunden, Grenfell, Brooke, Rosenberg, Sorley, Thomas, Gurney and Graves are included along with Robert Nicholls. Out of the thousands of people known to have written war poetry, a sort of inner conclave appears .

It is interesting to see that although the concept of’ Soldier Poets’ – the war poet with extra authenticity – is still flourishing, quite a number of anthologies have done their best to go beyond such a rigid category; ‘Poetry of the First World War- an anthology’ edited by Tim Kendall (2013) combines poetry by ‘Soldier Poets’ along with renowned writers who didn’t serve ( Kipling, Hardy, ), women poets (Mary Borden, Charlotte Mew, May Cannan ) , lesser known poets ( Edgell Rickword, T.P.Cameron Wilson ) and a selection of music hall songs and other ditties are included. The only ‘Great War at Sea Poetry’ that appears is from Kipling.

Perhaps that most impressive anthology in the last two decades must be ‘The Winter of The World’ edited by Dominic Hibberd and John Onions in 2007, which adopts quite an inclusive approach.

In both works the lack of interest in ‘War at Sea’ poetry is a shame -apart from Kipling- but overall two excellent anthologies.

But the question looms, ‘Why does it matter who wrote a text and when it was written?’

To take some lines

“ Remote and silent, through the northern night,
There falls the blessing of a faint starlight.
Across the dark it calls the memory,
England! Of those that gave their lives for thee
And now like stars, so many and so high
Will shine for ever in our English sky. “

Perhaps not great literature. The rhythm is mundane, the rhyming of ‘night’, ‘starlight’ and ‘high’ and ‘sky’ are too obvious. So is the notion of a dead person being a star. An how can the sky be English?

What intrigues me is context. These words, these lines, are the same whoever wrote them. If I said that they were written by a non-combatant in 1915, a woman who used to hand out white feathers to young men who had not joined up yet these lines get one degree of meaning.

If I said that said ‘woman with the white feather’ had just heard that her brother serving in the Royal Navy had drowned after his ship had been torpedoed, a different perspective is reached. Somehow the passage becomes more authentic because the writer’s connection to the subject becomes more real.

These lines are actually from Edward Hilton Young ‘s ‘North Sea Stars’ from ‘A Muse At Sea’, written aboard the HMS Iron Duke in 1915. Hilton Young was therefore serving and writing, and some of his poems were published in HMS Iron Duke newsletter ‘Ducal’ for other serving men to read. ‘A Muse At Sea’ was a small anthology of his work published in 1919. This is about his weakest work, by 1918 he wrote some quite remarkable poems,including the excellent ‘At The Gate’ , written on board H.M.S Vindictive just before the Zeebrugge Raid.

Another layer of interpretation is added when on realises that Edward Hilton Young fought at the Zeebrugge was so badly wounded at Zeebrugge that part of his right arm was amputated. He was also an M.P.

What is interesting is that War Poetry generally functions on this dynamic of ‘text’ – ‘writer'(What was their personal experience of war) -‘context’.-‘(when was the poem written ? ‘1916 seen from 1921’ to take a title from Edmund Blunden :Does Philip Larkin’s MCMXIV say more about the early 1960’s than 1914? )

One quite forgotten poet set up for a revival is Wilfred Gibson. His poem trench poem ‘Breakfast’ –

‘We ate our breakfast lying on our backs/Because the shells were screeching overhead ‘

Gets deflated when one remembers that Gibson didn’t see any active service during the Great War.

The Priveliging of the ‘anti-war’ voice.

Found an inspiring and quite thought provoking quote from Elizabeth Vandiver recently

“The privileging of the anti-war voice in First World War poetry has skewed our ability to recognise other voices;

‘Stand in the Trenches Achilles-Classical Perceptions in British Poetry of the Great War’. (2010).

Many people in the 21st century consider the Great War to have been a futile conflict and there is a danger of gathering poetry and literature as ‘evidence’ for this stance and setting up the figure of the ‘war poet’ as being a daring truth teller somehow confirming to the reader the nature of the Great War. So classic poems such as Julian Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’ get overlooked. In a similar vein ,a war memoir such as Ernst Junger’s ‘Storm of Steel’ is considered to be inferior to ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ rather than both being appreciated.

There are many ways of viewing ‘Great War at Sea Poetry’ : Possibly having literary merit, maybe as a historical record of people’s expectations and fears of their historical time. But hopefully not being judged whether or not they meet with 21st century sensibilities.

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