Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Jon Stallworthy and Wilfred Owen’s Ghost

'Jon Stallworthy’s last public appearance was as patron of the English Association’s conference on British Poetry of the First World War, held at Wadham College, Oxford, to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of hostilities.’                                                                                        (Times, 26.11.14, Obituary of Jon Stallworthy)                

Nearly right. Jon Stallworthy was indeed patron of this conference (about which I have written before); sadly, however, by September he was already too ill to appear at Wadham. He had been due to speak after the Conference Dinner so, with characteristic care not to disappoint, he’d sent his speech in advance to be read by Tim Kendall, the conference convener. All of us sitting in Wadham’s splendid Hall agreed with Tim: if it hadn’t been for Jon, none of us would even have been at a conference on war poetry. I wish Jon could have heard the applause when Tim said that, but the Guest of Honour’s chair was empty.

For forty years after publishing his 1974 biography of Wilfred Owen, Jon presided over war poetry as a field of study, and his two-volume edition of Owen’s Complete Poems and Fragments (1983) stands as a monument to his editorial scholarship and sleuthing alike. His own account of this detective work (in an essay modestly entitled ‘Wilfred Owen and his Editors’), identifying and - by matching watermarks - dating sheets torn from different notebooks reminded me of Sherlock Holmes instructing Dr Watson (in The Sign of Four) how to distinguish different brands of cigar ash. He did much to ensure that war poetry never became a narrow academic byway. What, he once asked rhetorically, does Owen’s poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ do? His answer was:

First of all, it persuades us that it is true; secondly, that its truth is shocking; and, thirdly, that we should do something about it. Owen offers us what a medieval rhetorician would call an exemplum, an example, an illustration of a man choking to death on poison-gas; that followed by a moralitas, a moral coda of passionate indignation. (‘The Mire and the Fury’)

Whether as teacher, writer or lecturer, he was always accessible, enthusiastic, even self-deprecating though few people in the Humanities had less cause to be modest than Jon Stallworthy. His anthology The Oxford Book of War Poetry (1984) traced a 3000-year-long trajectory from Homer to Seamus Heaney, and for many readers opened up an entirely new perspective on what war poetry was and could be.

Stallworthy never wanted ‘war poetry’ to mean simply ‘First World War Poetry’; indeed, the term itself worried him.  In Survivors’ Songs he described ‘War Poetry’ as ‘an unsatisfactory category’ and ended a chapter on Rupert Brooke by saying: ‘Rupert Brooke is not a War Poet. He is a poet of peace, a celebrant of friendship, love, and laughter.’ He began the next chapter:

Siegfried Sassoon is commonly called a ‘War Poet’ – hardly a satisfactory label at the best of times, and more than usually unsatisfactory in Sassoon’s case. (p.178)

I heard him once admit to an audience of sixth-formers and teachers that he was worried he’d been responsible for the way the poetry of the First World War is today overvalued at the expense of the poetry of the Second. He was still worried this year: in the Foreword (‘Thirty Years On’) to the New Oxford Book of War Poetry (2014) he wrote:

The widespread ignorance of Second World War poetry is disturbing. Why it persists is a question cultural historians should address and a curriculum imbalance that educationalists should urgently correct. Too many schoolchildren (and too many teachers) need to be reminded how warfare – and poetry – have changed since 1918. (p.xxxv)

His books are beautifully written: compare his detailed, moving but utterly unsentimental account of Owen’s death with accounts offered by others – Dominic Hibberd’s, for instance, or Pat Barker’s at the end of The Ghost Road.  You’ll see what I mean.  Owen indeed came to define Stallworthy’s life as powerfully as he defined his reputation. In the Foreword to his 1994 edition, Wilfred Owen: the War Poems, Stallworthy thanked his wife ‘who so good-naturedly and for so long accepted Wilfred Owen as a ghostly addition to the family’; and of course that ghost makes a dramatic appearance at the end of his own biography. On the evening of 11th November 1918, a week after being killed on the banks of the Sambre-Oise Canal, Wilfred appears to his brother Harold, who has not yet heard news of his death.  Harold is stationed on a ship off the coast of Africa, and comes down to his cabin to find a smiling Wilfred sitting, waiting for him. Stallworthy offers this account of their strange meeting, told in Harold’s own words, as the first evidence of what he calls elsewhere ‘Owen’s afterlife’.

But, as biographers and scholars sometimes discover, you can spend too long with ghosts, and I think Jon Stallworthy may have come to find Owen a troublesome presence. In ‘Goodbye to Wilfred Owen’ he described in unsettling terms his

cold struggle to break free – from whom?
I am not myself, nor are his
hands mine, though once I was at home
with them.

I think his much-admired biography Louis MacNeice (1995) was another attempt to break free and, certainly, Stallworthy deserves credit for reviving interest in MacNeice’s poetry. But he could never quite leave the war poets behind. In ‘Voice Over’, his valedictory introduction to Survivors’ Songs, he wrote

I have spent many of the most rewarding hours of my life listening to the voices of absent friends – Thomas Hardy, William Yeats, Wilfred Owen, David Jones, Wystan Auden, Keith Douglas, and Old Uncle Tom Eliot and all … and I think of the essays in this book as thank-you letters expressing gratitude in terms that, I hope, may lead other readers to listen to their voices and hear in them what I have heard. (p.x)

Teaching readers to listen is why teaching poetry matters; and I shall always be grateful to Jon Stallworthy for sharing with us what he himself had heard.

Adrian Barlow

(This post is an adapted and extended version of an appreciation to accompany the report in the English Association Newsletter of the Wadham Conference, of which Jon Stallworthy was patron.)

‘Voice Over’, ‘The Mire and the Fury’ and ‘Wilfred Owen and his Editors’ are essays in Jon Stallworthy, Survivors’ Songs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press , 2008)

‘Goodbye to Wilfred Owen’ is collected in Jon Stallworthy’s volume of his own poetry of war, entitled War Poet (Manchester: Carcanet, 2014)

[illustrations: (i) some of Jon Stallworthy’s publications; (ii) the Sambre-Oise Canal today, close to the spot where Wilfred Owen was killed.

Visit the English Association’s Discover War Poets website.

Text and illustrations © the author

Friday, 14 November 2014

Armageddon and Rupert Brooke

Rupert Brooke’s posthumous Letters from America (1916) has an unusual epilogue, entitled ‘An Unusual Young Man’. Is it an essay in the form of a short story, or a short story disguised as an essay? Whichever, its first-person narrator recalls a younger friend of his who, on a walking holiday in Cornwall in the summer of 1914, only learned on his return that war had been declared. The setting is certainly fictional, for Brooke was actually staying with at Cley-next-the-sea on August 3rd and 4th; but the young friend is Brooke himself. So the older man, explaining the thoughts and feelings of his younger friend, is a device enabling Brooke to reflect, with apparent detachment, on his own anxious and contradictory reactions to the war.

His puzzlement comes because he loves Germany – Bavaria and Munich especially – almost as much as he loves England, and certainly more than France. He has good friends there, of whom he cannot help thinking ‘heavily … all the time’. But when he tries to refocus, replacing old memories of his new enemy with appropriately patriotic thoughts

– he kept remembering, unwillingly, a midnight in Carnival-time in Munich, when he had seen a clown, a Pierrot, and a Columbine tip-toe delicately round a deserted corner of Theresienstrasse, and vanish into the darkness. Then he thought of the lights on the pavement in Trafalgar Square. It seemed to him the most desirable thing in the world to mingle and talk with a great many English people. Also, he kept saying to himself – for he felt vaguely jealous of the young men in Germany and France – “Well, if Armageddon’s on, I suppose one should be there.”

It’s as well the narrator admits that the young man kept saying this, for Brooke himself had evidently used these same words before. Shortly after the declaration of war, Brooke had wondered, with impeccable Fabian logic, about getting to France not by joining up, but by going over to help bring in the harvest. After all, France had compulsory military service; its reservists had already been called up; most of its farms were now short-handed. Less altruistically, he had also toyed with becoming a war correspondent. However, Christopher Hassall, whose biography of Brooke (though fifty years old this year) remains the best, records that

His first idea, to go over and help the French garner their crops, was now dropped, as also was the idea of reporting for a newspaper. But it wasn’t easy to enlist. He was amazed by Harold Monroe’s experience, who turned up on a motor-bicycle to volunteer, was rejected because his engine was of the wrong kind, reappeared next day with another engine, and was told there was no room. Meeting J.C. Squire in the street, ‘Well, if Armageddon’s on,” Brooke said, “I suppose one should be there.”

I’m not a fan of biographies whose notes and bibliographies at the back of the book threaten to swamp the narrative at the front, so I’m glad that Hassall wrote his book before citation and referencing ad tedium became the norm for all serious biography; but I should like to know who heard (and recorded or reported) Brooke saying this to the poet and editor J C Squire. Was it Squire, or Brooke himself, pleased enough with this apocalyptic utterance to recycle it in ‘An Unusual Young Man’? Edward Marsh, Brooke’s close friend, literary executor and author of the foundational ‘Memoir’  (1918), makes no mention of the meeting or Brooke’s Armageddon remark. True, other biographers have repeated the story, but again without reference, so I begin to wonder if they’re simply rehashing Hassall. Here, for instance, is Nigel Jones:

Brooke toyed with various half-baked ideas to be of use: did the French need hands to gather in the harvest now that so many peasant-soldiers had been mobilized, he wondered. He also made a half-hearted attempt to get a war-correspondent’s job, but there seemed to be no interest. Back in London on August 10th, and hurrying from office to office, he met the poet and journalist J.C. Squire in the street. Squire asked him what all the rushing was for. ‘Well, if Armageddon is on,’ replied Brooke, I suppose one should be there.’

‘Hurrying … rushing …’ These are reasonable adjectives for a biographer to use in creating a sense of Brooke’s mood of the time. But if his attempt to become a war reporter was only ‘half-baked’, was Brooke really in that much of a hurry? At least Jones is more specific than Hassall in providing a date – August 10th – though Brooke was already in London the previous day: in a letter quoted (but again not cited) by Marsh, he describes going to a music hall show. After a few sketches and songs, the next item displeases Brooke, though he describes it, and its aftermath, in detail:

“Then a dreadful cinematographic reproduction of a hand drawing patriotic things – Harry Furniss it was, funny pictures of a soldier and a sailor (at the time I suppose dying in Belgium), a caricature of the Kaiser, greeted with a perfunctory hiss – nearly everyone sat silent. Then a scribbled message was shown: ‘War declared with Austria 11.9.’ There was a volley of quick, low hand-clapping – more a signal of recognition than anything else. Then we dispersed into Trafalgar Square and bought midnight War editions …. In all these days I haven’t been so near tears; there was such tragedy and dignity in the people.”

Britain formally declared war on Austria on 9th August. The film Brooke had disliked was Peace and War Pencillings by Harry Furniss, a cartoonist and illustrator for magazines such as Punch and the Illustrated London News. It had premièred at the Coliseum in St Martin’s Lane – hence the audience had spilled out into Trafalgar Square. Was this, then, why the unusual young man’s thoughts had turned from Theresienstrasse to Trafalgar Square?

In the end, Brooke found a way of getting to Armageddon. Let Richard Aldington have the last, touching (but still not necessarily reliable) word:

I had a last glimpse of Rupert Brooke when Flint [FS Flint, Aldington’s friend and fellow Imagist poet] and I bumped into him in Piccadilly, not long after the outbreak of war. He was dressed in a shabby macintosh, and looked a little sallow and less handsome than his pictures. He at once informed us that he had a commission, and was about to join the Naval Division at Antwerp. We wished him luck – a gallant but pathetic figure, the last English poet who really believed in the romance and chivalry of war.

Adrian Barlow

[Illustration: photograph of Rupert Brooke by Sherril Schell; frontispiece to Letters from America.

·      Extract (i) from ‘An Unusual Young Man’ in Edward Marsh (ed.) Letters from America (London Sidgwick and Jackson, 1916) pp. 179-80 
·      Extract (ii) from Christopher Hassall, Rupert Brooke, a biography, (London: Faber, 1964) pp. 458-9
·      Extract (iii) from Nigel Jones, Rupert Brooke  (London: Richard Cohen Books, 1999) p.375
·      Extract (iv) letter from Brooke; quoted in Edward Marsh, ‘Memoir’, in Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1918) pp. cxxiv-cxxv
·      Extract (v) from Richard Aldington, Life for Life’s Sake (London: Cassell, 1941; 1968) p.135.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Reading Stained Glass (iv): a war memorial window

Today, 11th November 2014, seems a good day to reflect on a complicated type of memorial: war memorial stained glass. After the Armistice in 1918 the windows paid for and installed in churches and cathedrals by families, communities, schools and regiments no doubt gave consolation and a sense of pride at the sacrifice of those whom the glass commemorated, and at having done something fitting. I’m not sure they are quite so comforting today. Here’s why.

The parish church of St Peter and St Paul, at Clare in Suffolk, is stately and light: most of the windows are clear glass. Some heraldic panels and other fragments in the East window are all that remain of the medieval glass, most of which was smashed by the Puritan iconoclast, William Dowsing, in 1643. But there is heraldic glass, too, in the tracery of a window in the North aisle, and indeed these heraldic signatures may offer a clue to the donor: alongside shields representing the diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, those of an early Earl of Norfolk buried in the Abbey of Bury St Edmund, and the arms of England itself, one of the shields displays the arms of the Haberdashers’ Company. No hint of the donor is given where you’d normally expect to find it: in the inscription at the bottom. Instead the window, by the distinguished stained glass artist FC Eden (1864-1944), has an austere, academic Latin dedication:

In honore[m] pretiosissimi Sanguinis D[o]m[ini] N[ost]ri Je[s]u Chr[isti] et in piam memoriam eorum qui vitam pro patria obtulerunt.
In honour of the most precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ and in pious memory of those who offered their life for their country.

So it is a Great War memorial window. At first sight this is simply a stylised Crucifixion scene, with Mary and St John on either side of the Cross, but the design is significantly elaborated: at the top of the central light sits God surrounded by six-winged cherubim, and with the Dove as it were on his lap. Pale beams of light radiate downwards from this highly schematized representation of the Throne of Heaven. Then, at the top of the Cross, there is a kneeling angel immediately above the Pelican in her Piety, that moving emblem of the sacrificial nature of Corpus Christi and the Crucifixion. At each end of the cross bar sit images of the sun and the moon, conventionally seen in crucifixion windows of both medieval and modern design and representing the eclipse, the darkness that covered the earth at the third hour, when Christ died.

On either side, in the two outer lights, are two figures who further help to identify this as a war memorial window: St Michael (left) and St George (right). Dressed in full armour and holding a sword by his side, St Michael carries in his hands the scales with which, at the Last Judgement, he will weigh the souls of the righteous and the unrighteous. He stands upon an almost inconspicuous snake, (the Serpent – i.e. Satan) whom he has defeated. Opposite him is St George, who would usually be depicted in such a window having just slain the dragon at his feet, but here he’s shown simply in an attitude of devotion before the Cross. It’s as if this window deliberately resists any triumphalism. The emphasis is all on sacrifice rather than on victory. Texts appear above both saints: one text in fact, the Vulgate rendering of Hebrews 10.14:

‘Una enim oblatione consummavit’ + ‘In sempiternum sanctificatos’
For by one offering he hath perfected forever them that are sanctified.
An important detail: the Latin word ‘oblatio’ – here referring to Christ’s self-sacrifice, his offering of himself – comes from the same root (obferre > offere) as the word ‘obtulerunt’ used in the window’s inscription to refer to the soldiers’ offering of their own lives pro patria. The self-offering of the soldiers is thus semantically associated with the self-offering of Christ.
And now the most startling feature of all: from the hands and side of the crucified Christ blood streams into an oblong basin or tank out of which the Cross has sprouted. Sprouted seems the right word for, like a tree, it has produced branches which provide the pedestals on which stand the statue-like figures of the Virgin and St John; and from one of these branches a new shoot has begun to sprout.  Actually, what I have called a basin or tank is a bath full almost to the brim: visibly and literally, a crimson blood-bath. Nowhere else have I seen this extraordinary, ironic image in a war memorial window. Indeed, I have only ever seen it in one other window – a tiny 16th century silver-stained roundel in an interior window of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. And in that particular roundel naked figures are shown washing themselves in the bath itself.
Given then that Eden's window is to be understood as a memorial to The Fallen, it appears to invite us to identify the dead of the war as ‘they which’ (to quote from the Book of Revelation) ‘came through the great tribulation’ and have ‘washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb’? For just as the blood spilt in 1914-18 is transmuted here into the sacrificial blood spilt on the Cross, so the bath in this window is transformed into the tomb in the garden of Joseph of Arimathea. This is where Mary Magdalene, seen kneeling on the grass among the flowers, has come with her precious ointment, to embalm the corpse that is no longer there.

One final link connects the scene above to the dedication at the base of window: a small medallion with a shield depicting the Instruments of the Passion – crown of thorns, nails, spear and sponge of vinegar. The shield is surrounded by a wreath studded by five white flowers, a wreath at once of victory and of mourning. I have to repeat here that I find this window moving but discomforting. The visual pun (for that is what it amounts to) on a blood-bath almost disgusts me: is it really  theologically and historically acceptable to imply that the English dead of the Great War –  this window’s heraldry is wholly English and Anglican – have become Christian martyrs, exchanging the blood-bath of Passchendaele for the blood-bath of Passion-tide? To admit that millions of lives were sacrificed in France and Flanders a century ago is one thing; to suggest, however, that the lucky winners, and presumably they alone, were making a Christ-like ‘sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction’ is surely another.

[Illustrations: the war memorial window, N aisle of Clare Parish Church, Suffolk, Artist: FC Eden

Text and photographs © Adrian Barlow

My previous posts in this ‘Reading Stained Glass’ series can be found here:

(i)  Rouen