The Great War was the war of the great war poets. Was ‘the war to end all wars’ also the war to end all war poetry? The best part of Jon Stallworthy’s introduction to his Oxford Book of War Poetry is a discussion of the chivalric ideal in the British public school classes of the 19th century. ‘Honour the charge’ makes the cavalrymen of the Light Brigade into Arthurian heroes; ‘Noble Six Hundred’ places them in the tradition of the three hundred Spartans commemorated in Simonides’ epigram on Thermopylae. For Sir Henry Newbolt there is no difference between the words of the school cricket captain with ‘Ten to make and the match to win’ and those of the schoolboy rallying the ranks when ‘the Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead.’ At the beginning of the First World War young men were honoured to ‘Play up! play up!’ The Great War poets derive some part of their power and bitterness from the gulf between this idealised chivalric vision and the actuality of the hell they inhabit in the trenches. The poems strive to dislodge the ideal from the mind of the reader; the force of contrast is crucial to their effect. Flanders field was the very opposite of those fields across which the cavalry rode. Yet it was still a field. Many First World War poems – like many passages of the best prose arising out of the war – owe their poignancy to the fact that immediately behind the static lines there were fields with skylarks overhead that reincarnated rural England. The juxtaposition of Somme and Severn is at the heart of Ivor Gurney’s work (which is under-represented in Stallworthy’s anthology). Edward Thomas’s poems (which are very sensitively represented) rarely engage directly with the war: they approach it through the England that will be missed by the departing soldier, denuded by the absence of the departed.
After the publication of the poetry of Owen, Sassoon and the rest, then the prose memoirs and war novels that appeared in a flood in the late Twenties, there could be no more illusions. ‘Never such innocence again’: it is because men went innocently in 1914 as no man can go innocently to war again that the Great War marked such a watershed and retains such a powerful hold over the minds of later writers. About what other war have so many poems been written so long after the event – often by writers not even born at the time of the war itself? In addition to Larkin’s ‘MCMXIV’, Stallworthy’s anthology includes Ted Hughes’s ‘Six Young Men’, Douglas Dunn’s ‘War Blinded’, and Vernon Scannell’s ‘The Great War’, with its careful enumeration of the images that make the trenches indelible in our collective consciousness.
Further testimony of that indelibility is provided by Charles Causley’s new collection, Secret Destinations. Causley was born in Launceston, Cornwall, in 1917. His place and date of birth still weigh heavily on his work. He is at his best when writing of the locality he knows best; the poems in the first half of the volume, such as ‘On Launceston Castle’ and a piece with the refrain ‘This is the house where I was born,’ seem to me far stronger than those in the second half, written while in residence at the University of Western Australia. Wherever he travels, his real destination – never all that secret – is his native Cornwall, his own childhood. Few of the adults who people that childhood are untouched by the Great War, and it is images drawn from the war that frequently activate Causley’s metaphors: aunt Dora has ‘bullets for fingers’, a kookaburra ‘machine-guns the noon light’.
Although the Great War forces its way into Secret Destinations, overshadowing even ‘Alice Springs’, the poem to engage most overtly with war is one called ‘1940’. It reveals the difficulty of writing about the Second World War. By virtue of both its title and its subject, a mass of men waiting to go to war, it invites comparison with ‘MCMXIV’. But comparison shows that 1940 does not have the iconic power of 1914 – one could not imagine the poem bearing the weight of the title ‘MCMXL’. Evocative as they are, Causley’s images (‘tin adverts warming in the sun’, ‘an empty chocolate-machine’) do not denote anything larger, more momentous, in the way that each of Larkin’s stands inexorably for the passing of a world, an innocence.
The powerful contrasts that underpin so much poetry of and about the First World War could not readily be applied to the Second. The chivalric ideal was finally discredited, and with the decline of rural England pastoral images became less commonly shared. The Second World War was a more urban affair: fewer members of the officer (the self-consciously literary) class came from country homes; towns were fought for; cities were bombed. From Homer to Owen the poetry of battle had obeyed the unity of place, been centred in a field of encounter. The language evolved by the Great War poets, with its dependence on the local and the particular, was not responsive to the concept of total war, the mobile battlefield, or the advent of sustained war in and from the air. Edith Sitwell’s ‘Still falls the rain’ and Richard Eberhart’s ‘The Fury of Aerial Bombardment’ overreach themselves in their attempts to find a rhetorical lift to match the fall of bombs.
Keith Douglas was the best of the English Second World War poets because he managed to reconstitute traditional contrasts. Jon Stallworthy senses this and writes well in his introduction about the elegy ‘Aristocrats’: ‘It is sharply focused, acknowledging both the stupidity and the chivalry, the folly and the glamour, of cavalrymen on mechanical mounts duelling in the desert.’ If the tank corps is a version of the cavalry unit, we also need to refer Douglas’s image of a cricket pitch, with the title of the poem’s alternative version, ‘Sportsmen’, back to Newbolt and the public school tradition. This vein of imagery is not merely literary: in his prose memoir, Alamein to Zem Zem, Douglas records that the two main sources of allusion in wireless communications between tanks were horses and cricket. Figures such as ‘I’m having trouble with my horse’s insides: could I have the Vet?’ and ‘now that that chap has retired to the pavilion, how many short of a full team are you?’ enabled danger and death to be accommodated.
It would have been helpful if Stallworthy had quoted the note that went with the manuscript of ‘Aristocrats’: ‘Lt Col. J.D. Player’ – what better name? – ‘killed in Tunisia, Enfidaville, Feb. 1943, left £3000 to the Beaufort hunt, and directed that the incumbent of the living in his gift should be “a man who approves of hunting, shooting, and all manly sports, which are the backbone of the nation”.’ To judge from this Oxford Book, ‘Aristocrats’ is the best English poem of the second war (it is hard to see why Sidney Keyes should be given twice as many pages as Douglas). Douglas’s combination of lyricism, cynicism, irony and comedy, delicately supported by variation of caesura, is perfectly achieved. The text of the poem in Jon Stallworthy’s anthology has two misprints: for ‘falling’ read ‘fading’; for ‘The plains’, ‘These plains’.
In Fast Forward, Peter Porter meditates persistently on the decline of Classical culture and the threat of nuclear war.
What comes of the used-up Mediterranean
When rockets point like pines in tundra
Towards the profaned moon?
he asks in ‘Cyprus, Aeschylus, Inanition’. The title poem considers the transformation wrought on St John’s vision of apocalypse ‘when the fire has crept into a governed switch’. A powerful line – but those that follow it suffer from a metaphor that mixes its media, shifting inexplicably from books to cassettes. Too many of the poems in Fast Forward are overstretched. The one that moved me most was the simplest, an elegy for a dead cat, which also convinced me that Porter is still capable of splendid verbal agility: ‘cat-flap-banging metre’ is a wonderful coinage. ‘Fast Forward’ itself ends:
in lightning numbers, the god of prose
hears his own voice prophesying peace.
Porter is at his best, not when he helicopters in lightning numbers, as he does so frequently in this new volume, but when his work is presided over by the god of prose, as in ‘Your Attention Please’. He remains one of our finest satirists and observers.
Blake Morrison, of the Observer, has shown himself over the past four years to be a highly gifted observer. On the subject of war, he now shows himself to be a trenchant satirist:
Her grail’s religious: coming from the flatlands
She dreams of death on a high green hill.
Nothing can countermand the Iron Will.
‘And yet she’s tapped the English heartland’: there’s the rub. The war won her the election; the observer who questions her motives is liable to be branded an outsider, a traitor even. Looking and questioning, trust and betrayal, the outsider: this is the matter of Morrison’s Dark Glasses. The first half of the book is a gathering of short poems; the finest of them is ‘Grange Boy’, in which every simile is both new and right. Paradoxically, the boy inside the big house is the outsider; he can look at the milltown boys gathering conkers, but he cannot participate; he is isolated, withdrawn – ‘English, we hoard our secrets to the end.’ Lyrics such as ‘Grange Boy’ and ‘Dark Glasses’, with its epigraph from King Lear (‘And take upon’s the mystery of things / As if we were God’s spies’), prepare us for the previously unpublished long poem that occupies the second half of the book. Its title is ‘The Inquisitor’, an allusion to Browning’s poem about a poet, ‘How it strikes a contemporary’:
We had among us, not so much a spy,
As a recording chief-inquisitor.
Morrison sets these lines beside Coleridge’s famous account in the Biographia Literaria of how a government agent spied on him and Wordsworth in Somerset in 1796 and misheard ‘Spinoza’ as ‘Spy Nozy’, but ‘could not catch a word about politics’. Morrison’s persona is a spy; like Browning’s poet, he is an outsider, an inquisitor. For a time he was a schoolteacher, but was mistrusted (‘They observed you observing’); recruited by the ministry, he is given an assignment that is never explained; it brings him into contact with the Calvi affair, a man who has tried to trace the origins of Lech Walesa, and the memorable dismissed civil servant Lascelles whose analysis of the Falklands war is so telling. We catch words about politics but, as in the Coleridge incident, they are subordinated to larger questions about knowing and about poetry.
The questions are left unresolved; the thread of the poem is deliberately obscure. Blake Morrison’s introduction to The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, co-written with Andrew Motion, is apposite: ‘Whereas Raine and Reid re-interpret the world through their use of simile, a number of other young poets have done so through the art of narrative ... we are often presented with stories that are incomplete, or are denied what might normally be considered essential information. The reader is constantly being made to ask, “Who is speaking?”, “What are their circumstances and motives?” and “Can they be believed?”.’ Morrison’s use of simile (‘Her voice rings like a grocery-till’) marks him out as a very talented poet: but the kind of narrative he describes here and employs in ‘The Inquisitor’ worries me. The poetry of the Great War exposed the hollowness and the terrible consequences of the ethos of ‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’ Today the ‘game’ is espionage, supposedly a preventer but easily a provoker of war. ‘The Inquisitor’ does much to expose the shabbiness of ‘the game’, but ultimately it is itself a game, a puzzle for the delectation of the intelligent reader. Of course there is value in poetry that makes us question, makes us ask ‘Can they be believed?’, but in war and that microcosm of war, ‘intelligence’, the truth matters too much for the question to be sufficient. Poets, like politicians, must speak the truth.