Sunday, 23 February 2014

In defence of the War Poets

“It seems to have become much easier to understand the Great War as poetry than as history – and as anti-war poetry at that.” Thus Jeremy Paxman, writing in his recent book of his TV series, Great Britain’s Great War.

The centenary of the First World War is now truly upon us, and I sense a real danger of centenary fatigue before we even get to August and the anniversary of the opening hostilities. This week sees the start of a TV debate between two opposing historians, Max Hastings and Niall Ferguson, each presenting their contrasting answers to the questions, should Britain have joined the war in the first place? And, having done so, was it worth it? As it happens I heard both Paxman and Hastings at the Cheltenham Literature Festival last autumn, the one hectoring, the other Churchillian in his delivery. Both, however, were anxious to debunk the ‘myths’ about the Great War – lions led by donkeys, indifference of the generals to the loss of life, the ‘lost’ generation, misery of life in the trenches, the futility of it all, etc. Both were keen to blame one tiny group of people for having propagated these myths in the first place, and having thus distorted the ‘reality’ of the war in the minds of young people for more than half a century.

Let me take a roll-call of this tiny group: Owen, W; Sassoon, S; Graves, R; Blunden, E; Aldington, R; Rosenberg, I; Gurney, I; Jones, D; Read, H. I have limited the list to those ‘trench poets’ who wrote about what they had experienced, first-hand, on active service on the Western Front. Hence no Edward Thomas in this list, and no Rupert Brooke. Do you recognize those last two names?  How many poems written by all of the above can you remember – even their titles: Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, ‘Strange Meeting’ and ‘Futility’; Sassoon’s ‘The General’ and ‘Glory of Women’, perhaps; Rosenberg’s ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ and ‘Returning We Hear the Larks’?

It’s a frequent complaint that these poets, and the poems they produced, are quite unrepresentative of the vast quantity of poetry written during and after the First World War, by women as well as men, by those who served in the Navy and the Royal Flying Corps as well as in the Army, and by those not fighting at all. Yet it is these few poets and these few poems that have generated what Max Hastings calls ‘the poets’ view of the war’, which he so deplores.

Nearly a year ago, I posted a blog entitled ‘What larks? Birdsong, the Great War and cultural memory’.  In it, I spoke of the Conference I am helping to organise for the English Association, which is to be held in Oxford in early September this year. Although its title is specifically ‘British Poetry of the First World War’, the keynote speakers, Edna Longley and Jay Winter, and the presenters of papers come from around the world, the United States to Japan, Ireland to India. And the range of poets to be discussed goes far beyond the trench poets I have named above, seminal though they are; so the debates and discussions at the Conference are likely to be enlivening. They will challenge (I am sure) some of the growing number of myths about the culpability of the war poets for the ‘myths’ that obscure the ‘truth’ about the Great War – its causes, course and consequences.

It seems strange to admit that, now perhaps more than ever, war poets need friends, and it is good that most of the groups, societies and associations linked to individual poets or to groups of poets will be well represented at the Conference: the War Poets Association, the Wilfred Owen Association, the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, the Friends of the Dymock Poets, The Ivor Gurney Society, among others. Like all good conferences, this one won’t be all work and no play. One highlight will be a celebrity recital by the baritone Roderick Williams, with a programme of songs, many of which are settings of poems by the war poets. Another will be the Conference Dinner in the Great Hall of Wadham College, where the Guest of Honour will be Professor Jon Stallworthy, without question the doyen of war poetry studies.

Sassoon, Graves and Blunden, survivors all, published memoirs of their Great War experiences a decade or so after the Armistice. These, too, have led to some disturbing attacks. Here, for example, is a distinguished historian of war, Professor Jeremy Black of Exeter University, in The Great War and the Making of the Modern World (2011):

The standard images of the war, both literary and visual, have been ably criticized by military historians … who have pointed out the problems created by a very selective reading of a misleading literary legacy, notably of works published in 1928-30. Memoirs are often unreliable as history, but they are what the public and the media tend to rely on for their history because they offer triumph over adversity, as well as futility and pathos as themes, whereas straightforward scholarship is considered too dull. (p.220)

I have a list of adjectives to describe this paragraph: ‘condescending’, ‘peevish’, ‘dismissive’ will do for a start. More measured, but no less troubling, is the stance adopted by Professor David Reynolds, of Cambridge, in his recent book The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century (2013). He argues that “we need to think more critically about the now ‘iconic’ war poets” and claims it is “surely bizarre that more words should have been written about a score of war poets than about the 4 million non-white troops who fought for the Allies during the Great War (p.431).” I think it is surely bizarre to propose such a false antithesis. Nearly all the words written about the war poets have been written about the poems as literature, not as history, and have been written by poets, critics, teachers and scholars. If not enough has been written about the non-white troops who fought for the Allies, the responsibility for this lies, I would have thought, with those whose job is history, not poetry.

Much of David Reynolds’ book I have found illuminating. But I allowed myself a wry smile when, after reading how he believed the war poets had had too much influence on the way we now understand the war, Professor Reynolds ended the book first by citing Isaac Rosenberg, then by quoting - with approbation - Ivor Gurney and finally echoing - without attribution –Siegfried Sassoon (pp.433-435). Perhaps after all, historians, too, need the war poets.

Adrian Barlow

For full details of the English Association’s Conference, British Poetry of the First World War, including the complete programme and booking forms, click here.

[Illustration: Detail from a First World War memorial window in the Town Church, St Peter Port, Guernsey, Channel Islands. Photo © the author.


  1. If it is true that our view of the Great War has been too much formed by the poets – which I somehow doubt – then this is hardly the fault of the poets. We might as well blame Paul and John Nash for the paintings they made of the horrific effects of battle. What too of all the surviving photographs and cinematography? Anyone prepared to pay attention knows full well what the conditions were like. Study a subject with certain ideas already in mind, and you are perhaps likely to find what you are looking for. The war poets were writing literature under extreme circumstances, and their unique sensibilities have given us insights without which our conception of the Great War would be much impoverished.

    Here is the second stanza of Blunden’s ‘Warning to Troops’
    Oh marcher, hear. But when thy route and tramp Pause by some falling stream, or churches door Be the deaf adder; bear not back to camp That embryo music. Double not thy war. Know not that sweet prelusion. March, sing, roar, Lest a mad silence gnaw thee ever/more.

    What is Blunden saying? Do not open up a second front in your imagination.

  2. Alan Clark ["The Donkeys"], Liddell Hart, "Oh, What a Lovely War!" and other works of the 1960s should take the blame, not the war poets. Thank you, Adrian.

    1. Many thanks, Crispin. There is an interesting review of the current revival of ‘Oh, What a Lovely War’ in the current TLS. This concludes, ‘Some things are simply unspeakable. This perfectly caught element of Littlewood’s show may take on increasing importance during the centenary year’s inevitable barrage of commentary and opinion.’ I agree.

  3. I entirely agree with Adrian when it comes to matters of Poets of the Great War for there is a lifetime of scholarship behind his every word. I will not enter the debate. I will only add this: that there are now books of published letters from the trenches written by soldiers of different nationalities, which express most eloquently the experience of war as it was for them. Letters to be read at home. At the same time the official account of the day's action was written up by the officer in charge in the log. Accounts for the historian. Words, words, words. But what is the matter, my lord? The matter? So unspeakable that no returning soldier would voice it. And the rest is silence. But perhaps the most eloquent writing of the Great War is to be found on monuments, such as the one at Thiepval, the loudest of them all. I hope I can negotiate time off teaching to attend that conference, Adrian.

  4. Literature envy, anyone? The power of the crafted word, in story form and most powerfully in poetry, carries such force that it shapes memories, opinions and enables experiences to be shared in a way that nothing else can match. We absolutely need the arts - poetry, cinema, music - to remind us that war carries a huge cost with it, and renders civilized humans into perpetrators of unspeakable acts. The arts should not shy away from focusing primarily, if not exclusively, on this inevitable consequence of conflict. I suspect the historians feel overshadowed by the literature, and we are witnessing the accusation that if the arts reveal the cost of conflict, especially the personal cost, this is necessarily anti-war, and even unpatriotic.

  5. Thank you for a wise and timely intervention in the debate, Adrian. And I agree with Anil's observation that it is above all in the literature and art of war that we are reminded of its huge cost. The historians' quarrel with the poets' 'unrepresentativeness' is based on a complete misunderstanding of the nature of art; we need our artists to possess a peculiar sensibility, to be able to stand outside our culture - to be witnesses. I would add, however, that it is in the poetry of the First World War that we are reminded of that paradox - that war brings out the evil in humanity but also the highest good; the poets celebrate the latter even as they unflinchingly portray the former. (There is a wonderful letter from Ivor Gurney to Marion Scott (dated 15 December 1916) in which he states his intention to do exactly that.)

  6. Many thanks, Vivien, for putting this so clearly - and for the reminder of the importance of Gurney’s letter. The image I used above to illustrate this blog always reminds me of Gurney’s fine poem ‘The Silent One’.

  7. But surely, and I'm sticking my head up over the parapet here, the poetry of the Great War is that of trench warfare on the Western Front. It is not representative of the whole war, which was the first world war ever. Soldier-poets had time to write about their experiences and their observations of the horrors of such warfare. And I salute their poetry. But are they really representative of all the combatants in all the theatres of the war? The airmen? The Royal Marines? The sailors? All Poetic on the Western Front?