Wilfrid Wilson Gibson

I have already featured the work of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson ( 1878 -1962) on the Great War at Sea Poetry blog with particular reference to his poem ‘ Troopship Mid-Atlantic’.
Gibson’s war poetry was considered to be so ‘authentic’ that readers assumed that he had served on the Western Front.  Even  the prestigious 1964  anthology  ‘ Up the Line to Death – The War Poets 1914-1918 edited by Brian Gardner   maintained that he Gibson had joined up in 1914 and had served on the Western Front for a ‘short time’.

(From the blog)
“In fact Gibson was rejected for war service due to poor eyesight until 1917 ,then able to join the Army Service Corps Motor Transport . He never saw active service overseas . Largely forgotten from the mid-1930’s onwards, attempts have been made to revalue his work. Martin Stephens in his 1996 work ‘The Price of Pity ‘ paid his tribute to his use of the colloquial language of the ordinary soldier. Professor Tim Kendall included a section on Gibson in his 2013 anthology ‘Poetry of the First World War ‘ , stressing that “Gibson’s Battle (1915) was among the first volumes of poetry to convey the actualities of War as experienced by common soldiers’.  Tim Kendall maintains that Gurney, Sassoon, Owen, Graves and Rosenberg all praised his work.”

Worth also noting that Gibson lived in Dymock , north Gloucestershire  in 1913, and became part of the literary set known as the Dymock Poets. He counted Rupert Brook and Robert Frost as his friends. Siegfried Sassoon was also an acquaintance  but by  the  1930’s  interest was declining in his work writing the immortal lines ” I am one of those unlucky writers whose books have predeceased him” in a 1934 letter to Robert Frost. ( Quoted in ‘Poetry of the First World War’ anthology edited by Tim Kendall 2013.)  Well Gilbson might have felt that his star had faded ,being too identified with the Georgian poets, unable to compete with the influence of Modernism. Yet his work was included in the aforementioned ‘ Up the Line’…. Gibson also managed to have five poems featured in ‘The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse’ (1971)  selected by Philip Larkin, who only selected two poems by Isaac Rosenberg for the same collection.

A favourite Gibson poem of mine is ‘Suspense’:


“As gaudy flies across a pewter plate
On the grey disc of the unrippling sea
Beneath an airless sullen sky of slate
Dazzled destroyers zizag relentlessly
Whilst underneath the sleek and livid tide
Blind monsters nosing through the soundless deep,
Lean submarines among blind fishes guide
And through primeval weedy forests sweep

Over the hot grey surface of my mind
Glib motley rumours zigzag without rest
While deep within the darkness of my breast
Monstrous desires, lean sinister and blind
Slink through unsounded night and stir the slime
And ooze of oceans of forgotten time. ”

The destroyers ‘zig-zag’  in a bid to avoid the torpedoes fired from the submarines. A German U boat with a limited number of torpedoes had to aim carefully , and destroyers zig-zagging at some speed made them a tougher target. ( Realistically the old style battle cruisers were more at risk from U boat action).  The friction between the warfare below and above the sea is depicted well, and the comparison with the writers own inner tensions is conveyed in a surprisingly modernist fashion. Almost as if Gibson was trying to write about the sub-concious mind.

A further poem about a voyage in war time is ‘Leave’


“Crouched on the crowded deck, we watch the sun
In naked gold leap out of a cold sea
Of shivering silver, and stretching drowsily
Crampt legs and arms,relieved that night is done

And the slinking deep-sea peril pest we turn
Westward to see the chilly sparkling light
Quicken the Wicklow Hills, til jewel bright
In their spring freshness of dewy green they burn.

And silent on the deck besides me stands
A comrade lean and brown, wish restless hands
And eyes that stare unkindling on the life
And rapture of green hills and glistening morn,
He comes from Flanders to his dead wife,
And I from England to my son new born. ”

The first verse suggests a journey by troopship, the cramped conditions , reminding one of the soldiers featured in Isaac Rosenberg’s ‘The Troopship;

“Grotesque and queerly huddled.
“Contortionists to twist “

Along with a  tension of a night at sea, scared of being stalked by U-boats. In second verse it becomes apparent that the voyage is in fact to Ireland,heading near the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin . By the third verse the writer and his travelling companion are both standing and silent,   facing both the dawn spreading on the hills and the landmarks of their own lives. The wonder of the dawn seems quite indifferent to what is going on in the men’s life. Gibson also shows an empathy that existed between two strangers conversing  during war time, which he was to depict in other poems such as ‘Sentry Go’ (1928) with its opening line ‘True Lad who shared the ground with me’ .

Both poems are taken from the Collected Poems 1905-1925 , Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, (1926.)

Finally couldn’t resist including a sea poem by Gibson which has no connection to warfare;


Dark seas of driftwood  burn to peacock flames
Sea-emeralds and sea purples and sea-hues
That haunt the changeless deeps but have no names

Flicker and spire in our exhausted sight
And as we gaze the unserviceable mystery,
The unfathomed old salt magic of the sea
Shines clear before us in the quiet night

Who knows the secret that Ulysses sought,
That moonstruck mariners since time began
Snatched at a drowning hazard -strangely brought

To our home keeping hearts in drifting spars
We chanced to kindle under the cold stars
The secret in the ocean heart of man

From the Augustian Book of Poetry , Wilfrid Gibson, 1931


Wilfred Gibson’s contribution to sea poetry must also include his 1912 poem ‘Flannan Isle’ , based on a true incident in December, 1900 when three light keepers responsible for maintaining the lighthouse at  Flannan Isle, near Lewis, were found to have gone missing.  The incident has inspired a Doctor Who episode and an early album track by Genesis . The vanishing of the three men has never been explained.

The full poem can be found at here.


I had assumed that Wilfrid Gibson’s work was no longer in copyright. Oh, how wrong I was! Copyright actually belongs to his granddaughter Judy Greenway, who has kindly agreed to the use of his poems here. Belated thanks to her. Judy Greenway has a website and her own page on Wilfrid Gibson http://www.judygreenway.org.uk/wp/wilfrid-gibson-poetry-family-history/

An excellent source indeed.

One Reply to “Wilfrid Wilson Gibson”

  1. I really like ‘Suspense’. I came across your website as I heard the poem is about to be included in a naval exhibition at the Imperial War Museum and hadn’t come across it. He uses real world events as similes for events in the mind in a few poems I have come across. In ‘The Herd’, from his 1941 collection ‘The Alert’, he compares his thoughts to cattle in a twilit lane chivvied by a drover (his World War 2 poetry – 4 books – is largely ignored but includes some of my favourites; he was then in his 60s and grieving the death of his daughter in 1939). ‘Song at Midnight’ is another, reproduced in a 1959 anthology of Georgian poets in the ‘Pocket Poets’ series: ‘Something flutters in my mind/ Like a bird in the dead of night’).

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