22 JULY 1972, Page 18

Poets and trench-warfare

Graham Martin

Out of Battle, The Poetry of the Great War Jon Silkin (Oxford University Press 0.00) Question: What have these three in common? A German soldier hanging on the old barbed wire of a Somme battlefield. A British sailor torpedoed in the Battle of the Atlantic. A Vietnamese peasant incinerated by napalm on the road from An Loc. Answer: They are all victims of war.

But what is the humane observer's answer? Conceivably, the victims would have preferred something more particular. "I died fighting my enemies." Or more historical, " I died fighting the British/Germans/Americans." Official accounts would undoubtedly take a political line. "He died defending the fatherland / democracy / communism." While post war films would explore the anthropological view in elegiac tributes to dead heroes of the tribe. Are these rhetorics less true than the humane observer's? Is the objection to them that they are used at all, or used to unacceptable purpose? And in that case, what is an acceptable purpose? Some people killed in some wars would think the category 'victim ' did scant justice to their responsible assent to the aims of the war. Would they then be, as the other side might well sneer, the pitiful dupes of official brainwashing? Is all talk of "heroic sacrifice" a hysterical fantasy whipped up by cynical politicians bent on "national," i.e. ruling-class, aggrandisement?

As is common knowledge, experience of trench-warfare made several English poets of the 1914-18 war .bitterly sceptical of war-sanctioning rhetoric, and faced with their powerful testimony, together with the historian's confirmation of the scale and uselessness of the carnage, critics are understandably reluctant to take a more analytic view. Yet such a view is necessary. The issues are intrinsically important, and the critic who fails to see this risks being trapped within the attitudes of his subject. This is the major weakness of Jon Silkin's new study of their work. With many interesting and sensitive things to say about the individual poets, he can offer no general perspective on them as a group, save that they reacted to, and were largely, against, as he is against, war. They are war poets, as others are nature poets. It is less a category than a pigeon-hole.

The main critical point to make about these poets is, surely, that Owen and Ros enberg hardly excepted, none of them had sufficiently complex ideas about war to generate major poetry. To say so is, perhaps, to risk a shameful kind of impertinence, as if one nagged the poems of a Hiroshima survivor for failing to grasp the strategy of mega-deaths. Certainly, re-reading them is a salutary reminder of how much in the twentieth-century begins in the dud ' shows ', the shell-holes with dying, thirsty men, the barbed wire, the muddy quagmires, the shooting of "cowards," the bodies piling up on the Verdun ramparts. The poems still register morally stunning experiences with memorable completeness. They have that kind of permanence, that kind of contemporariness. It is when they move to questions, to analysis, to ideas, that the limitations appear.

Every now and again, Silkin seems to make this kind of point. The chapter on Rosenberg demonstrates his greater in dependence of the war experience, of the patriotic ethos which played some part in the early motivations of the other poets, and hence Rosenberg's richer use of what the war brought. In effective contrast, Silkin notes the abstracting, distancing movement in Owen's "pity," the uncomfor table closeness of his, or of Blunden's stoic resignation to the language of official con solation which made any dead soldier an incontrovertible reason for further deaths.

In some admirable pages on Sassoon, he shows how his "visual submissiveness" is both a strength and a weakness, leading towards, but never beyond, the hard, direct, polemical clarity. But no synthesis emerges. Indeed, such points are hard to separate from a great deal of pedestrian commonplace. In detailed analysis, Silkin falls into poems as into water, and after some routine diving, which sometimes makes discoveries and sometimes not, climbs out again, only to repeat the process further down the bank. Possibly the most revealing failure is not exploring the connection between the political denunciation in Sassoon's famous letter with the absence of similar ideas in the poems, and the queerly inturned aggression against dead bodies, or incompetent soldiers. Sassoon keeps to clear, objective detail because to reassemble it more imaginatively would involve him in a deeper analysis of his own ideas than, as a poet, he was prepared to undertake. The pages on Edward Thomas show Silkin struggling (not hard enough) with the incompatibility of the poet's patriotism, untouched by manipulative rhetoric, and his own conviction that nationalism is the root problem. He makes a lame case for the idea that the war gave Thomas's temperamental gloom and sense of mortality experimental focus, when it seems rather clearer that by giving him the satisfactions of purposeful companionship, it released him to write directly about isolation, and oblivion.

Silkin also devotes part of each chapter to the social and historical context which contributed to the poems. This is useful, but again it lacks penetration. There is too little on the special factors in British national experience which made for the peculiarly fanatical conviction that the war must be won. Take, for example, the gap between what the soldiers knew about the war, and what the civilians insisted on believing (Graves's family refused to listen, calling it nerves). How did it arise? It was reasonable for the poets to think of it as a government conspiracy, but this is too simple. Men like Horatio Bottomley don't grow in a social vacuum. The last European war involving British troops was the Crimean. We had no conscript army, no national experience of land-war. The main image of war came from far-off Imperial conflicts fought by small professional armies. The 1914-18 war was (with perhaps the exception of the American Civil War) the first industrialised conflict, in which the traditional horrors were compounded by men's helplessness in the face of machines. The other point needing extensive analysis is the deep-seated enthusiasm at the outbreak of the war, felt in Britain, shared by most other countries, and especially by the Social-Democratic parties who might have been expected to offer an ideological alternative to the virus of nationalism. Silkin touches on this, admittedly, mysterious condition, but he forgets it when he discusses Brooke's 1914 Sonnets, whose popularity he prefers to attribute to their recommendation by Dean Inge. The soldiers lost their first enthusiasm, but it took dreadful experiences (not words) to change their minds. This national feeling must, one supposes, have continued to make the political possibility of a negotiated peace hard for any government to entertain. Perhaps Lawrence was as right as anybody in thinking of the war as a tragically inevitable Deluge. The poets experienced it that, way. It should be prominent in any outline of their historical situation.