Out of the Trenches

Poetry of the First World Warby Tim Kendall

Oxford University Press. 368p $15.95

Most of the poetry that came out of the Great War was ironical, as Paul Fussell showed in his brilliant and moving The Great War and Modern Memory, but none of its veteran unironical writers, whom he doesn’t mention or glances over, ever denied war’s shattering effects. J. R. R. Tolkein, for instance, spoke of “sheer animal horror,” and C. S. Lewis of “the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass.” Neither Tolkien nor Lewis is included in this anthology, for good reason, but Julian Grenfell, who is (but whom Fussell does not mention) even though he wrote “And he is dead who will not fight;/ And who dies fighting has increase,” also wrote a poem called “Prayer for Those on the Staff,” which drips with irony, as seen in the lines “See that his [the aide-de-camp’s] eggs are newly laid/ Not tinged—as some of them—with green;/ And let no nasty draughts invade/ The windows of his limousine.”

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But as Tim Kendall, professor of English at the University of Exeter, notes in his introduction, writing about the war and its poets is more complex than irony versus sincerity:

The solider-poets who were capable of seeing and writing are often credited with having been “anti-war,” and their words are routinely recruited for propaganda by campaigners opposed to later conflicts. In accounts of the War and the art it inspired, futility has defeated glory as the appropriate response, and Wilfrid Owen has become the antidote to Rupert Brooke (who, it is often argued, would have come round to the right way of thinking if he had lived long enough). This risks damaging the achievements of the soldier-poets, because it neglects the extent to which their writings struggle with contradictory reactions to the war.... Most soldier-poets—like most soldiers—believed the War to be necessary, but wanted the costs acknowledged and the truths told.

In Kendall’s anthology, then, we get a fuller picture of the war than in Fussell’s book. Not only do we find generous selections from the four poets Fussell focuses on—Siegfried Sassoon, David Jones, Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden—but many others, some well-known, including Wilfrid Owen, Edward Taylor, Hardy and Kipling and others, including five women poets, less well-known, if known at all.

The poems of Mary Borden, an American who joined the French Red Cross and who was awarded the Croix de Guerre for working bravely under fire, were for me the most moving of the women poets. Her Whitmanesque poems convey both the horror—“This is the song of the mud, the obscure, the filthy, the putrid,/ The vast liquid grave of our Armies—/ It has drowned our men—/ Its monstrous distended belly reeks with the undigested dead”—and what she calls, in another poem, “the marvellous/ landscape of the war, the beautiful, the romantic landscape/ of the superb, exulting war.”

But what about the majority of soldiers, who were not poets or bards? Kendall includes a section called “Music-Hall and Trench Songs.” These are songs soldiers sang on the road and in the trenches, a few original compositions, most of them made-up words to traditional airs. Some sing of mademoiselles, some of cowardly staff in the hierarchy, some about the fear of dying from whizz-bangs and Jack Johnsons, different kinds of artillery. In a way it’s the most moving section of the book. After having read the preceding poems, it seems as though, knowing what you now know, you have looked up from your book and can hear the soldiers singing.

A reading ribbon lends a formal touch to the book itself, and the explanatory notes section is easy to use, with page numbers listed in the margins, although some of the terms included defy common sense. If you don’t know the meaning of cot, surely you could use a dictionary.

Overall, however, Poetry of the First World War is the perfect book to go with any of the older classics, like Fussell’s book or the new books that reexamine the Great War as we approach its centenary.

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