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Vol. 7 No. 22 · 19 December 1985

Michael Howard praises the poets of the Great War

It is only fitting that nations should honour their poets, for poets shape the soul of the nation. They take our language, use it to mould the images and the thoughts which we share in common, and in so doing they enrich and develop the language itself. They create those secret harmonies which we alone can hear; they teach our ears to hear and our eyes to see; they bind us together as a family is bound together by common experience and memories. Unlike music, poetry is necessarily and properly parochial. It is ours. No other people can say the same things in the same way. It is the true essence of a people, their peculiar inimitable voice.

Never was the voice of English poetry more resonant than at the beginning of our own century. True, the full tide of rich poetic discourse was beginning to ebb. Tennyson, Browning and Swinburne had not left comparable successors. But every literate Englishman had been brought up on their verse and that of their great Romantic predecessors: Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth. Every library was stocked with poetry, every speech and article was replete with conscious or unconscious poetic quotation. The writing of poetry was a popular pastime; poets were an honoured profession and their works sold in their thousands. Poetry was the more popular, perhaps, because it was evocative of a past which was beginning to disappear, descriptive of a countryside that was already vanishing. This accounts for much of the lush, elegaic quality of Edwardian and, even more, Georgian verse. It was the voice of the age: a nostalgic, somewhat apprehensive voice, speaking not only of blue remembered hills but of distant drummers; the voice of a generation which knew they were drinking the last of the wine.

Then came the war, that catastrophic thunderstorm which swept so much of the old order away. The poets themselves remind us with what enthusiasm that war was welcomed as a relief from a world grown old and cold and weary – a great if terrible adventure, a cleansing wind that would scour away the accumulated rubbish of a society which had perhaps become rotted by peace. Now, proclaimed the poets, was the chance for a proud and self-confident people to show themselves worthy of their ancestors, to meet any test, to bear any burden, to make any sacrifice to preserve their honour. England had been at peace for a hundred years; too long, perhaps, for its own good. Through war, her greatness would now be renewed.

It was clear from the first that this would not be a war fought far away by a small professional army, one about which a peaceful public would learn only at intervals through infrequent newspaper reports. It was a conflict involving the whole nation. The army opened its ranks to all fit to serve, and young men streamed in to ‘do their bit’, from the city, from the plough. They came with an enthusiasm which survived the discomfort and ineffiency of the camps where they had to sleep in non-existent tents and train with non-existent weapons. They were anxious only to get out to the front before ‘the show’ was over. Those who could not serve, especially the women, went to extraordinary lengths to be supportive of those who did. It was the first total war that this country had ever fought: an enterprise in which every man, woman and child felt passionately involved.

But at the same time it was a war fought somewhere else: not very far away, indeed – the thunder of the guns preparing the Somme offensive could be clearly heard in the hop-fields of Kent. But it was somewhere else. The ‘front’ – that sombre, haunting word – was overseas. It did not take long to get there from Victoria Station – the leave trains departed at nine in the evening, their occupants were back in the trenches the following afternoon – but in terms of experience it might have been on another planet. So vast was the gulf between the two worlds that the soldiers did not even try to explain to their loved ones what the front was like. Their time together was too short. They wanted to forget about it while they could. For those at home and those at the front, the war meant something totally different.

This was the characteristic that made the Great War so uniquely terrible. It was not simply the long ordeal in the trenches, rising to the prolonged slaughters of the Somme and Passchendaele; that grinding attrition of a conflict between two great peoples fighting with all the resources that their technologies and their industries could provide; their armies drawing ever more deeply on the national reserves of morale and manpower, their generals resolute upon victory but bewildered as to how to obtain it. War is always and inescapably terrible. But what gave that war its unique stamp was the contrast – the almost unbridgeable contrast – between the front line, whose denizens on both sides had to endure this prolonged nightmare, and the home base beyond the Channel: a country still as green and lush and gentle as the Georgian poets painted it, and one from which the war could still be seen as a romantic adventure. At home, indeed, the image of the war was still that established by the language of the traditional poets: language which spoke, not of rotting corpses, but of ‘the fallen’; not of being blown to bits but of ‘making the supreme sacrifice’; not of machine-guns and hand-grenades but of ‘the sword’. For a hundred years poets had so effectively concealed the true nature of war beneath a great screen of Tennysonian fustian that people could not think of it in any other way.

The reality which poetry had concealed, only poetry itself could reveal. Only the poets who had been to war could break the enchanted spell and show their people what the face of war was really like. Some, like Ivor Gurney and Edmund Blunden and Edward Thomas, quietly described their experiences without bitterness or emphasis, with much the same detachment and penetration with which they described the peaceful scenes that had first evoked their poetic gifts. Their verse is all the more compelling for its quiet understatement, its gentle but remorseless irony. Some like Siegfried Sassoon shouted themselves hoarse in trying to penetrate the carapace of ignorance which protected the illusions of the population at home. And there were some, like the master of them all, Wilfred Owen, who found the high poetic diction of traditional verse as effective a medium for conveying the full tragedy of war as it had been for his predecessors in concealing it.

There was to be another great war only twenty years later. But in that conflict there was no separation between front and rear. Those at home often had to endure as much deprivation and destruction as did the troops at the front. Ordeals were shared; suffering became commonplace. Nor were there any illusions left to shatter. The poets of the First World War had done their work. The generation that fought the Second World War had after all been brought up on the verse of Blunden, Owen and Sassoon. Poetry itself had changed its style. High poetic diction had disappeared: all was reduced to a level of commonplace. Romantic passion, whether that of illusion or disillusion, had been replaced by classical stoicism. Fighting was neither noble nor ignoble, but a necessary job to be done. War might be grim, but it was not futile. This was not an atmosphere to evoke great poetry, nor did it. Few poets rose above the level of clear-sighted rapportage. The sweet, piercing agony which characterises the poets of the Great War, that sense of immeasurable joys lost, of indescribable torments endured, that cry which seemed to come almost literally from hell: this was never to be repeated.

After they wrote, no one could ever think of war in the same way again; and they thus made it less likely that there ever would be war again. Out of the furnace of battle they told us what war is like. They achieved the object of all great art: they told us the truth. That is why we honour them today.

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