Writings dark as a raven’s wing
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The centenary of the start of the First World War (an odd centenary to mark if one thinks about it) has set off a four-year long reflection on the First World War, what it means to us now, and how we should best remember those who died or were forever scarred by their participation in it. With the 100th Armistice Day approaching, the question of commemoration becomes acute, and the poets of the First World War will undoubtedly be drawn in to ceremonies of remembrance, as they were into the recent Westminster Abbey service on August 4th, the centenary of the outbreak of hostilities.
The Wordsworth Book of First World War Poetry provides a good starting point for an exploration of the poets of the First World War; it does not confine itself to the best-known poets, such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon – though these are well-represented – but also features lesser-known poets: the underrated Arthur Graeme West, those known more as novelists than poets, such as Frederic Manning and Ford Madox Ford, and names not known at all such as John Peale Bishop, Leslie Coulson and P. H. Shaw-Stewart. Many of the poets represented come from the ranks, such as Ivor Gurney and Isaac Rosenberg, though these two are now fully recognised as major poets of the war. The spread of poets, and the fact that they are arranged alphabetically rather than chronologically, means that a different narrative of the war is allowed to emerge, rather than the standard – and now somewhat questioned – arc from innocence to disillusionment.
The strictness of the alphabetisation means that ‘Anonymous’ is only the second ‘poet’ (preceded by Richard Aldington, another contributor better known as a novelist than a poet). Thus the trench songs of the ordinary soldier, popularised by their use in the musical drama ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’, give us an initial healthy dose of realism and witty scepticism. I particularly relish the full words of ‘I don’t want to be a soldier’:
I don’t want a bayonet up my arse-hole,
I don’t want my ballocks shot away.
I’d rather stay in England
In merry merry England,
And fornicate my bloody life away.
Our familiarity with the tunes which accompanied such words (often in ironic counterpart as in ‘When this bloody war is over’ sung to the tune of ‘What a friend I have in Jesus’) lend these lyrics a jauntiness which belies their sentiments. ‘If you want to find the Sergeant’ is a case in point:
If you want to find the old battalion,
I know where they are –
They’re hanging on the old barbed wire.
The wire – whether constructing it, mending it, crawling through it, or getting caught in and dying on it – figures in a number of poems: Sassoon’s ‘Wirers’, Edmund Blunden’s ‘The Zonnebeke Road’, West’s ‘The Night Patrol’, Owen’s ‘Exposure’. The best of these is Ivor Gurney’s ‘The Silent One’, a dialogue between the ordinary soldier’s speech and the ‘finicking accent’ of the officer. ‘The politest voice’ of the officer asks the poet ‘“Do you think you might crawl through there: there’s a hole.”’ The poet sees however that ‘There was no hole no way to be seen / Nothing but chance of death’, and he replies, mimicking the officer’s politeness, and perhaps his accent, ‘“I’m afraid not, Sir”’. He thus escapes the fate of the third party in the poem, the man of the title, ‘The Silent One’, ‘Who died on the wires, and hung there’. Gurney brings the authentic touch of poetic and linguistic imagination to fill in the spaces that the trench song leaves; but both highlight the horror of a slow death hanging on the barbed wire.
A quite different element of First World War poetry, which has been recognised only in the last few decades as this poetry has been re-evaluated, is its reflection of the love between men which could be found in the close quarters of combat and the highly emotionally charged atmosphere where death could strike at any minute. Wilfred Owen’s ‘Apologia pro Poemate Meo’ (Apology/Explanation for My Poetry) also speaks of the barbed wire, but uses it as a metaphor for the nature of the bond between men at the Front:
For love is not the binding of fair lips …
But wound with war’s hard wires whose stakes are strong:
Bound with the bandage of the arm that drips;
Knit in the webbing of the rifle-thong.
The element of masochism in these lines may be to do with the feelings that Owen had to suppress as well as those he expressed; any evidence of homosexual acts on active service entailed a court-martial, and the consequences were greater if the relationship was between an officer and a private soldier. But the feelings between man and man were not necessarily sexual; deep and close bonds might be expressed in the romantic language of the love poem, as in Robert Nichols’ ‘Casualty’, where he wishes:
My comrade that you could rest
Your tired body on mine, that your head might be laid
Fallen and heavy – upon this my breast
While this might sound homo-erotic, it was perhaps rather the product of an earlier poetic idiom being used in a situation which that idiom did not and could not match. Owen writes, in a letter to Sassoon, of his experience of the death of his servant Jones: ‘the boy by my side, shot through the head, lay on top of me, soaking my shoulder, for half an hour. Catalogue? Photograph? Can you photograph the crimson-hot iron as it cools from the smelting? This is what Jones’ blood looked like, and felt like. My senses are charred.’ Owen’s prime point here is that a new form has to be found to give expression to the unknowable horror of such an experience (horrific even if it did – perhaps because it did – carry with it elements of the sexual). A photograph wouldn’t do it; the charred senses have to find a new poetic language. And this is what the best First World War poets did find.
Isaac Rosenberg is one such, with his focus on the minutiae of discomfort at the Front – lice, rats – at one end of the spectrum, and his deep existential understanding of the moment of death at the other (in ‘Dead Man’s Dump’):
Here is one not long dead;
His dark hearing caught our far wheels,
And the choked soul stretched weak hands
To reach the living word the far wheels said.
Ivor Gurney is another, quite different, poet who grasps that ungraspable, unsayable moment of death. In ‘To His Love’, he writes from the experience of believing his boyhood friend Will Harvey to have been killed. Harvey in fact survived, and interestingly the poem was written when Gurney knew that; the poem is a product of the imaginative understanding derived from believing Harvey to be dead. The poem begins with the simple ‘He’s gone, and all our plans / Are useless indeed.’ What could better capture the feeling after the death of any loved one? Finality; the wreckage of the future; despair. But Gurney goes on to make this a poem about commemoration, drawing first on the pastoral of their shared Gloucestershire countryside, imagining the body covered with ‘violets of pride / Purple from Severn side’, in an idyllic restoration of the lived past. Then, however, he turns back on himself, realising that the impulse to memorialise is in fact an attempt to cover up the horror that lies behind the whole poem:
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.
‘That red wet Thing’ – as close as Gurney can come to articulating the dead body, yet more articulate, in recognising that the living body has become that vague and inanimate ‘thing’, than if it were more specific.
‘That red wet Thing’ is what underlies all these poems, and it is what we need to remember at any of the memorial events that we attend in this centenary period. Often the rhetoric, whether of ceremonial, of religious service, of the war memorials with which we are so familiar, of the standard words of remembrance drawn sometimes from the Bible but sometimes from poets such as Laurence Binyon, is designed to cover rather than reveal the reality. A close reading of the poets of the First World War gives us different perspectives on that reality.
The title of this article is taken from Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘The Rearguard’.
Note: The Wordsworth Book of First World War Poetry does not represent women poets of that period. Catherine Reilly’s anthology, Scars Upon My Heart, Virago, London, 1981, gives a good selection of First World War women poets.
The Oxford University First World War poetry archive (www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit) has inimitable archives of the poetry of the period and it is accessible to all. See also www.sardonicrat.wordpress.com for an interesting blog by my colleague Andrew Palmer on Rosenberg and other First World War poets; and for material on Ivor Gurney as both poet and composer go to www.ivorgurney.org.uk.