Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Simon Turner - Recent War Poetry Criticism

In the conclusion to a review of Ivor Gurney's Collected Poems, republished in Ways of Life (2008), Andrew Motion asserted that: "Gurney, like - [Edward] Thomas - secured and sustained a poetic line that was specifically English but nevertheless flexible and inclusive, at precisely the moment when the radical, cosmopolitan techniques of Pound and Eliot seemed to overwhelm it.  For a long time we have been told that the modernists were a race completely apart, and the only people to face up to the modern period.  Now we are beginning to know better."

In effect, the closing moments of Motion's review essay are a quiet and unassuming manifesto for a form of fractured Georgianism: Ivor Gurney, like many of the poets of the First World War, was a writer firmly in the 'English line', with a close affinity to a particular rural landscape (in Gurney's case, Gloucestershire), whose pastoral aesthetic was challenged, maybe irrevocably damaged, by the abrupt intrusion of the war.  Gurney, though not included in the Georgian anthologies, wrote of them positively in a number of his war-time letters, and shared the underpinning creeds and enthusiasms of the poets gathered under the Georgian tag.  The literary response to the conflict, in fact - David Jones' In Parenthesis and Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End aside - is almost exclusively Georgian or Georgian-affiliated in character.  Whatever our feelings on Modernism and its aesthetic antagonists, Motion's assessment of the period is valid, and needs to be acknowledged. 

And yet it is telling that this reading of Georgian poetics as just another means of being modern in a crowded literary marketplace should appear in the guise of a critical consideration of a war poet.  The First World War, for all its devastating effect upon the lives of an entire European generation, was responsible, paradoxically, for keeping the Georgian flame alive.  When schoolchildren are spoon-fed Owen, Sassoon and Blunden, they're officially learning about 'war poetry', but they're simultaneously imbibing Georgian poetics unawares, via intravenous drip.  The question, of course, presents itself: Would Georgian poetics have survived without the War intervening as a subject that could ennoble the output of the movement's more notable affiliates?  Literary history is, of course, full of 'what ifs?' - what if, say, Max Brod had taken Kafka at his word and burned his as-yet-unpublished manuscripts? - and it's rarely very fruitful pondering them, but in this instance it's inevitable.  Any revisionist reading of the Georgians must also be, by default, a critical appraisal of the poetry of the Great War.

Two recent studies of the war poets - Nicholas Murray's The Red Sweet Wine of Youth and Harry Ricketts' Strange Meetings - would seem to bear this out.  Both books tackle the Georgian influence on the poetry of the war (Murray chiefly in an early chapter delineating the literary squabbles of the period, whilst for Ricketts, a radical re-examination of the Georgian inheritance forms the backbone of his thesis), but in both cases the more original aspects of the authors' work feel strangely clandestine, as if they were at odds with what might be expected of a mainstream study of war poetry aimed at a general rather than academic readership.  The covers themselves give some indication of the tensions involved, falling back as they do on the visual shorthand of poppies 'n' Tommies to convey the message "This is a solemn account of the hardships and sacrifices endured in the trenches by those who fought" as swiftly and as simply as possible.  The packaging of both books, sadly, does each a great disservice, as I hope to show.            

Ricketts' Strange Meetings takes a more abstracted approach to its subject than Murray's more linear narrative in The Red Sweet Wine, but both studies throw up their fair share of surprises.  Ricketts' approach, as his title suggests, is to structure his chapters around meetings between a number of the key poets of the war, some of which are familiar, others far less so.  Indeed, it's the most tangential 'meetings' in the book that are the most interesting: Owen and Sassoon's encounter in Craiglockhart War Hospital will be familiar to anyone who's read Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, and, though deftly handled, is less essential reading than the account of the awkward and tentative meeting between David Jones and Siegfried Sassoon, with which Ricketts closes his narrative.  It's interesting to note, in fact, that the most effective chapters are precisely those where the focus is honed upon the literary tussles of the period, rather than the effect of the conflict upon its poetic practitioners.  Ricketts' account of the 'meeting' between Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas is exemplary of this: Ricketts delineates Thomas' strained attempts to write a fair review of Brooke's 1914 & Other Poems and, in the process, renders concrete the abstract truism that Brooke's poems, for the later war poets, represented a kind of negative example of naive and Romanticised heroism that simply became impossible to sustain as the scale of the war's mechanised destruction grew more and more apparent. 

The real strength of Ricketts' study, however, lies in its re-examination of the Georgians.  For a long time, the Modernist caricature of the Georgians - that they were a Romantic hangover, with an atavistic preference for formal poetics that went hand in hand with a pastoral subject matter that seemed blithely unaware that the Industrial Revolution had been going on for some decades - seems to have been taken at face value in readings of the period.  Ricketts, however, makes a strong case for the Georgians not as the antithesis of Modernism, but rather as its counterpart: the Georgians, remember, saw themselves as supremely modern, and were as concerned with reversing the deadening effect of late Victorian abstraction on poetic composition as Ezra Pound at his most aggressively polemical.  Their differences might simply be a matter of degree: Pound and his cohorts were arguably the more absolutist camp, whilst the Georgians saw their modernity as arising naturally, organically, from an existing English tradition [1].  Moreover, and more radically, Ricketts notes that some of the Georgians - for a while at least - had the march on the Modernists, with the trench poetry of Robert Nichols arriving at a far greater degree of disruptive deconstruction of poetic form and meaning than, say, Eliot had achieved at that point in his career.     

Read in this light, the concluding meeting between Jones (the neglected High Modernist whose density of allusion makes the Cantos read like Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis) and Sassoon (almost parodically exemplary of the Georgian camp: an arch-traditionalist in matters of verse composition, crashingly posh, and a big fan of horses) comes across as a (failed) motion towards a rapprochement between Georgian and Modernist aesthetics.  Tellingly, it's Sassoon who's most snippy in the aftermath of their chat, describing Jones some weeks later to a friend as "a pathetic, helpless seeming little man [...] Have you tried reading him?  Father Sebastian specialised in The Anathemata - quite beyond me".  Jones, meanwhile, betrays a charming degree of boyish enthusiasm in his own account: Sassoon, he wrote in a letter to René Hague, was "extremely nice, gentle and pleasant [...] he couldn't have been more friendly and agreeable."  That's also quite a concise summation of Ricketts' strengths as an author. 

Murray's The Red Sweet Wine of Youth, though superficially the more conventional study of the two, is arguably more radical in its intentions and critical processes.  First and foremost, as Murray states in his preface, the book is motivated by the desire to counter the misrepresentation of the poetry of WWI as anti-war in character, a misrepresentation that Murray, framing his argument (as Ricketts does in his own preface, oddly enough) in terms of a personal reminiscence from his own school days, places squarely at the feet of educators.  Rather, Murray posits, "the British poets of the First World War were not anti-war but 'anti-heroic'", which is to say that they critiqued the language of heroism by which the war was justified through their unsparing depictions of trench life, taking a 'pragmatic' rather than ideological approach to the conflict.  In this regard, Murray's book is a breath of fresh air, a counter to the more sentimental (mis)readings of Owen and Sassoon that can arise when we falsely conceive of them as pacifists themselves.  

One of the other outcomes of Murray's study is an increased focus upon the quality and centrality of his chosen poets' prose.  Indeed, for a study of war poetry, there's remarkably little poetry discussed with the same level of depth and precision as the prose accounts, letters and memoirs of the protagonists.  In Murray's appraisal of the work of Edmund Blunden, for example, Blunden's poetry feels strangely incidental to proceedings, with far more weight being given to the various prose narratives that Blunden published throughout his lifetime.  Arguably, this editorial decision is correct (Blunden's reputation as a war writer rests far more squarely upon the reminiscences in Undertones of War than on his charming but comparatively minor poetry), but still seems incongruous in the context of a study of war poets put out by a mainstream publisher.  Of course, it might equally be a natural correlative to Murray's stated counter-intuitive critical intent: just as he rescues Sassoon, Owen, Rosenberg and company from the damnation of classroom mis-interpretation, so Murray places greater emphasis upon the prose of the poets under discussion precisely because it isn't as well known.  This is, obviously, speculation, but if that was Murray's intention, it's worked, and there are a number of leads in the book that I feel a strong need to follow up, not the least of which is Blunden's De Bello Germanico.  (Amazon's claims of unavailability be damned: I will acquire a copy before the month is out.) 

The flaws in both books arise (at least to my mind) because of the essential tension between authorial intent and marketplace function.  Both books' rather cliched covers have already been noted, but I think a more generalised tension can be detected in the texts themselves.  During Murray's discussion of Sassoon, for example, a great deal of time is devoted to Douglas Jerrold's 1930 study The Lie About the War, a cantankerous appraisal of the spate of war memoirs that sprang up in the years between 1928 and 1930.  Jerrold's take on the situation is that by focusing upon the sufferings of the individual, memoirs such as Graves' Goodbye to All That and Blunden's Undertones served to elide the socio-political actualities of the war, providing instead "a peculiar, unhistoric, and absurdly romantic vision of war which was popular, and that under the clever pretence of telling the truth about war, a farrago of highly sentimentalised and romantic story-telling was being foisted on to a new, simple and too eagerly humanitarian public."  Strong stuff, and quite a nice surprise to find overlooked material like this in a mass market, as opposed to academic, publication.  The problem is that not enough time and space is allowed to really get to grips with the implications of Jerrold's argument - some close textual analysis of, say, Graves or Blunden would serve either as refutation of, or support for, Jerrold's case against the memoirists - so that the matter is too swiftly dropped, Sassoon is returned to, and Jerrold's counter-attack continues to hover unmentioned in the textual background, like Banquo's tattered ghost.       

One can sense Ricketts and Murray striving to break away from the potential conventions and pitfalls that a study of war poetry might engender, Ricketts through his tangential structure that, through necessity, almost elides the front line altogether, Murray through his refusal to fall back on sentimental GCSE cliche, and his inclusion of unexpected primary and secondary sources that favour, surprisingly, prose over poetry.  Moreover, both Murray and Ricketts, by foregrounding the old debates between Modernist and Georgian poetics, have between them snuck in, Trojan-style, a fascinating, perhaps even radical, reappraisal of the Georgian contribution to the poetics of the twentieth century.  In less bombastic terms, though, both The Red Sweet Wine of Youth and Strange Meetings offer some incidental pleasures, due to the shock of recognition that these debates between opposing aesthetics (from the Georgians and the Modernists, through the Movement's over-throw of the New Apocalyptic crowd, on into the controversies of the Poetry Wars in the 1970s and their aftermath on the contemporary poetry scene) are as old as the hills, and don't become any less heated, however many times they're rehearsed in new settings.  Pleasure, too, upon learning that, for all the vituperative invective fuelling these aesthetic contretemps, the great British public stuck to their preferences for Kipling and Bridges during wartime: the new poetry, whatever flavour it came in - Georgian or Imagist; Futurist or Symbolist - failed to make the slightest blip on their radar.  Quite a liberating thought, that.                                      


[1] Those who are interested in such things might want to read Alexandra Harris' Romantic Moderns, a recent winner of the Guardian first book award.  Harris study looks at the ways in which continental Modernism was absorbed and modified by the native English traditions in painting, design and literature, creating a kind of meliorative aesthetic that is distinctly 'modern', but which eschews the more polemical tendencies of that adjective's attendant 'ism' to draw inspiration from the English landscape, folk traditions and architectural heritage.  It's a compelling account, though flawed: Harris is much stronger on painting than literature, and some of her literary choices (the Sitwells, Vita Sackville-West) seem marginal figures in comparison to the more vitally modern work being produced by Eric Ravilious, Ivon Hitchens and John Piper in the same period.    


oliver dixon said...

Fascinating review. The suggestion that the continued over-attention accorded the First World War poets (eg. in exam syllabuses)has kept a drip-feed of Georgian influence trickling into cultural preconceptions of what English poetry should be like is a brilliant insight. Anyone who had the misfortune to read through the Carol Ann Duffy-endorsed collection of poems for the Royal Wedding in the Saturday Gaurdian recently was given a dispiriting reminder of how firmly engrained certain mawkish neo-Georgian orthodoxies remain.
Two minor quibbles: although much of Gurney's work falls into a Georgian mould, in some of the war-inspired and later poems he seems to be moving towards something much more original and chancy, something (as you say) more"fractured" and potentially Modernist in intent.
Also, to the non-Georgian exceptions you cite (Jones and Ford), surely it would be wrong to omit Isaac Rosenberg, who like Gurney developed from early Georgian forms to a highly personalised, almost expressionist manner in works like 'Dead Man's Dump'.Herbert Read, a more explicitly Modernist writer, also produced war-poems in no way "Georgian-affiliated". (I haven't come across Robert Nicholls, who sounds interesting - where are his poems available?)

The Editors said...


I'll have to start this response with the sound of me slapping myself on the forehead for missing Herbert Read, a writer I know and admire (for the war poetry, criticism, involvement with Surrealism, and for his genuinely bizarre novel The Green Child). How I left him out is beyond me. A second slap for overlooking Rosenberg, who's covered in both books (Murray, in fact, cites Rosenberg's 'Break of Day in the Trenches' as 'the best single poem of the First World War', which is high praise indeed): like Gurney, another figure who muddies the clean lines between Modernist and Georgian approaches.

I take your point about Gurney: he's a very interesting figure, and the attempt by Motion to reclaim him as a kind of shell-shocked Georgian does him some disservice, I fear: actually far more radically, it might be possible to re-read Gurney as a Modernist wolf in Georgian clothing. Indeed, I've been told that there's quite a lot of unpublished Gurney in the archives that suggests a more Modernist / Imagist strain in his writing that has hitherto failed to appear in print. The partial public version of Gurney is compounded by the fact that his Collected Poems is really a very generous selected, as P J Kavanagh, the editor of the edition in question, himself notes. It's compounded, too, by Gurney's compositional method, which often involved abandoning work he saw as intractable, rather than re-drafting until satisfaction was achieved, as most poets might, which means that there are a lot of false starts, repetitions, rewrites, etc in his corpus. Tim Kendall is currently co-editing a complete edition of Gurney's poems for OUP: it'll be interesting to see what kind of poet emerges from this no doubt epic undertaking.

Nicholls is hard to get hold of: I was sufficiently intrigued by Ricketts' portrait of him and his work to look around. He achieved quite a lot of fame as a result of the war poetry, but Ricketts seems to suggest that the subject matter of war lent gravitas and heft to the poetry, as the post-war work never quite took off. Nicholls becomes, in Strange Meetings, a sort of parable about what can happen to a war poet once the war's deserted him. A shame his stock's fallen so much, because I'd like to read more than what's cited by Ricketts.

Simon @ Gists and Piths

Tim Kendall said...

I hadn't known about this blog, and I'm delighted to have found it. Many thanks!

I haven't yet read Ricketts' book, but I thought that Murray's, given the market constraints which you fairly point out, does its job admirably.

The Georgian v. Modernist divide is explored and bridged by Peter Howarth in British Poetry in the Age of Modernism. But some of the most interesting writers, like Charlotte Mew, don't fit either camp. Of course, we don't have to take sides. I love Sassoon's best work and In Parenthesis.

A quick word about the unpublished Gurney. It is astonishingly various, and it makes terms like Georgian and Modernist seem rather small and beside the point. I hope that the complete edition --- 3 vols! --- will hammer home his greatness.

oliver dixon said...

The Complete Gurney is an enticing prospect and might alter our whole grasp of the problematics of 'English Modernism'.
Thinking about your review made me get out my old Penguin Book of First World War Poetry with its fantastic, probing introduction by John Silkin, surely one of the most carefully-weighed reponses to some of the same issues as you go into. He makes an interesting selection too, contextualising the usual suspects with really good European poems in translation and even some female poets' responses to the war. I hope to write a post on the book on my blog when I get a moment.
Incidentally theres a poem called 'To Robert Nicholls' by Robert Graves in there.

Nicholas Murray said...

Thank you for that very interesting and generous review, and especially for recognising the constraints we non-academic authors work under. (And our lack of control over jackets and subtitles!) I like the Trojan horse analogy. Literary biography is always accused of giving Insufficient Attention to the Work but here my apparent economy with the discussion of the poetry, in addition to the reasons you give, was also based on an assumption that anthologies of first world war poetry are abundant and clasped in every mitt and I hoped that I could assume that. The interesting responses to the Georgian/Modernist tension or non-tension theme make me think that critics need to engage with this much more as a topic in its own right because, as someone in the thread here said, the way poetry is written now continues to be influenced by this multiple inheritance.