The Plan of Attack
By STEPHEN POTTER
WHY this compulsion to return to the First World War? Is it because it is only now that we can bear to bring it into focus? Only now that our own century, hamstrung by early disaster, is able without flinching to examine the scars, to comprehend and accept the gigantic trauma of its childhood? These two books,* published on the fiftieth anniversary of the out- break of war, present the final test of acceptance. We could take those interesting historical memoirs by the Field-Marshals and the Right Hons. in our stride. New access to official records has given us, through such books as The Sword Bearers, a chance to explain the inex- plicable. But here before us are the true historians of the time, the poets of the First World War. If we can bring ourselves to listen to them, we may finally understand—may really possess the tragedy, and the obsession will end.
Re-reading these war poems can be an uncom- fortable experience. I myself was eighteen in the last year of the war and, with most of my friends, I just missed the Western Front. For this relief much thanks: yet at the time there was disappointment. The average young recruit still believed even in 1918 that fighting in the war was an ennobling experience; and this was not a question of war propaganda. War- mindedness had been made glorious by the war poet:
The thundering line of battle stands, And in the air death moans and sings; But Day shall clasp him with strong hands, And Night shall fold him in soft wings.
Julian Grenfell's poem seemed too sacred to be even spoken about, far less criticised. And as for Rupert Brooke, everyone had to agree that he was the greatest young poet of the age, with the 'Peace' sonnet, and his English nature, and the humour, and the war sonnets: to say nothing of the fact that (after some delay in joining up)-he had 'given his life.' In Gallipoli in action, we thought. The fact that he bad died of. an infection which turned, in those pre- penicillin days, to fatal septicaemia, was never part of the legend. And besides all this, there was Kipling, the boys' hero, to underline the rightness of an English cause, and invigorate us with cheerful glimpses of the services in action, illustrated in stunning realistic detail. Off the English coast, the minesweepers are in action:
Boom after boom, and the golf-hut shaking And the jackdaws wild with fright!
'Mines located in the fairway, 'Boats now working up the chain,
'Sweepers—Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock and Golden Gain.'
One could pop into the Coliseum—home, then, of dignified Variety—and actually hear these verses sung by three matinee actors smothered in tarpaulins, for a 'Fringes of the Fleet' sequence. It would be placed after a patriotic scena and give Mark Hambourg time to stroll over from the Savage Club to play his Rachmaninoff Prelude. By those who had missed the battle, realisa- tion, understanding, was kept carefully at bay. After 1918, War Poetry was very naturally 'Out.' We never read it. There was a stinking corpse in our lives, but it was bundled up in the basement. In the end it was the war poets after all who began to uncover it first, in the autobiographies. First, Blunden, in Undertones of War, gently removed the shroud: but it was Robert Graves and, above all, Richard Aldington in Death of a Hero who first began pushing our horrified faces into the entrails.
Now, with these two books to help us, study the poetry once more. Hitherto, anthologies of this period have been sparse: but Brian Gardner's collection of the War Poets, Up the Line to Death, is most carefully and sympathetically chosen and edited. He has the right kind of reverence. In an apt phrase he thanks the sur- viving poets 'for allowing him to cross their great and precious past.' Many readers will like to use this book to fill out, with its more catholic choice, John H. Johnston's English Poetry of the First World War. Outwardly this alarmingly big volume has the appearance of an American university thesis: Mr. Johnston's sub-title, 'a study in the revolution of lyric and narrative form,' is grimly academic, and he reveals a slight weakness for finding 'influences' at unimportant moments and 'Imagist' or 'Georgian' groupings for young men who had only a month to live. But here, in fact, is a sound guide through one of the most complex developments of poetry. For years we have thought of this development as evolution, from Idealism (Act I) to Disillusion (Act II), with the disaster of the Somme battle marking the change. Forced into so crude a context, the poetry suffers. Yet criss-crossing this dividing line are deeper contrasts. There is the difference, for instance, between the urgent des- perate scrawl of the man under imminent sen- tence of death and the detached writing, away from the scene of action, of the man who feels he must speak for his generation.
Then disillusion, if and when it came, took so many different forms. One kind of dedicated soldier could write joyous verses reflecting the feelings expressed in his letters that War was one great glorious picnic: another, like Sassoon, would take arrogant pleasure, between decora- tions for gallantry, in stripping warfare of its last shred of glory. Edmund Blunden represents a much deeper yet less personal doubt. Wilfred Owen, who concentrated so long a life, into four years of fighting, developed into the prophet of anti-war, the champion of the misused private soldier, the recorder of the obscure dead.
What passing bell for those who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the• guns.
This was the Wilfred Owen who on leave used to carry about horror photographs of the hideously maimed, to shatter the cheery com- placency of Home Front optimists. Yeats did not
approve of prophetic tendencies, of urgent con-
temporary themes, so he cut the man with a cause out of his Oxford Book of Modern Verse as a sort of retrospective punishment. Perhaps it was these same tendencies in Wilfred Owen, this passionate eloquence, which caused his words to be chosen as the text of our great War Requiem of the Sixties.
How do all these poems read now, after fifty years? The chief impression, when the shock of pain has been assimilated, is one of admira- tion. What other four years in our literary history has produced such a concentration of poetic talent? It really seems as if the fears that they might cease to be did marvellously quicken the power of creation. `What I write is angular,' wrote
Charles Sorley, whose half-forgotten merits arc
well displayed in Johnston's chapter on the early poets. 'I have no time for the fine touch, nor seem likely to.' Sorley was twenty when he was killed at Loos, in 1915. Suddenly, potential 'Georgian' poets, with too little to write about, found themselves faced with a subject which Homer would have found unmanageable. At first the Georgian quality is still there:
Form fours! Form two-deep! We wheel and pair And still the brown leaves drift in Russell Square.
Yet how quickly they succeeded in outstaring the head of Medusa and by a precise vision of the detail, finding beauty even in horror:
Colonel Cold strode up the Line
(Tables of rime and spurs of ice), Stiffened all where he did glare, Horses, men and lice.
Visited a forward post, Left them burning, ear to foot; Fingers stuck to biting steel, Toes to frozen boot.
Stalked on into No Man's Land, Turned the wire to fleecy wool, Iron stakes to sugar sticks Snapping at a pull.
Stiffly, tinkling spurs they moved Glassy eyed, with glinting heel Stabbing those who lingered there Torn by screaming steel.
Edgell Rickword, the author of those lines, sur- vived the war: but so many of these poets—half the most famous—were killed before the Armis-
tice, that the question must often come into the mind: how would these dead heroes of litera-
ture have developed? We can only compare then.) with those who survived. Sassoon and Blunden
did not increase as poets or, rather, kept their
best poetry for their prose. By contrast, Robert Nichols never produced another volume which matched the fame of Ardours and Endurances-- a success which, because it was a little fortunate, obscures the far greater merits of his later poetry
Perhaps, though the war poets might have had
great careers in other forms of literature, their poetry could never again have lived up to the intensity of the first clear impulse. I -remember the lines of Richard Church ('The Wartime
It is time for us, the middle generation.
To stop singing, the bells of our hearts are cracked. . • .
The young men coming, he says, will write A symphony heedless of us, the broken and spilled, The scrannel-piped scare-boys on the old battle" field.
* UP THE LINE TO DEATH : THE WAR POCIS 1914-18. An Anthology selected by Brian Gardner. (Methuen, I8s.) ENGLISH POETRY OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR• KY John H. Johnston. (Princeton and O.U.P., 455.)