Lead book review

Look again – the first world war poets weren't pacifists

A review of Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew, by Max Egremont. This chronological anthology puts the spotlight on the poets' patriotism

10 May 2014

9:00 AM

10 May 2014

9:00 AM

Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew Max Egremont

Picador, pp.336, £20, ISBN: 9781447241997

If the poets of the first world war probably enjoy a higher profile now than they have done at any time in the last 100 years, it has not been a smooth passage. When Wilfred Owen was killed in the last week of the fighting he was still virtually unknown, and even 25 years later in the middle of another war, when the ludicrous Robert Nichols — the man Edmund Gosse had once seen as a new Keats and Shelley combined — brought out his anthology of first world war poetry, there was still room for only four poems by Owen and none at all by Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas or Ivor Gurney.

I don’t suppose there are many readers now who would argue with the prominence given by Max Egremont to these four poets, but it is worth remembering that there is nothing either fixed or inevitable in the literary canon that lies behind any such collection as this. Nichols might not be the best guide to anything or anyone except himself (his favourite music, he told Eddie Marsh, was ‘the sound of my own voice’), but if it is easy enough to ignore a disappointed old poseur one only has to glance through the index to 20 years of the Cambridge literary journal Scrutiny — nothing on ‘Little Wilfred’, nothing on Sassoon, nothing on Blunden, nothing on Graves as a poet, only a small pat on the head for Gurney as a composer — to get a salutary reminder that with the exception of Rosenberg and, to a lesser extent, Thomas, those poets that now seem the most distinctive and important voices to emerge from the war did not necessarily seem so to their own generation.

This is not simply another anthology of the ‘best’ poetry of the Great War, though, but an attempt to tell the story of the war through its poets and explore their development through the impact of the conflict on their writing. Egremont takes 11 poets — all soldiers at one time or another — and arranges their work in chronological order, interleaving each selection of verse with a long and assured narrative chapter that places their work firmly within the wider historical, literary, military and political contexts from which it emerged.

Any such selection is going to leave its gaps, of course — you can suddenly find yourself looking for Kipling, for instance, or Hardy, or Ford Madox Ford — but there is no shortage of war anthologies and the advantages outweigh any minor frustration. It is pretty well impossible now to imagine the literary criteria that could turn a Robert Nichols or a Julian Grenfell into serious poets, but set them within the context of the war and popular excitement in the way that Egremont does here — it is estimated that a million war poems were written in Germany in 1914 alone — and verses like Grenfell’s  ‘Into Battle’ or Nichols’s ‘Thanksgiving’ have every bit as much right to their place here as Sassoon’s satirical squibs or the startling late flowering of Owen’s talent.

Some Desperate Glory carries a punch, too, because while there can be nothing really new in the story that emerges — the literary friendships and connections, the ubiquitous presence of Eddie Marsh, the webs of patronage, the shell-shocked invalids of Craiglockhart, the postwar history are all familiar enough — both his choices and the strict chronology that he imposes on them make certain things strike home with a new freshness.

There is a natural tendency to see the war’s poetry in terms of a lurching progression from the hysteria of 1914 to the disillusion of 1917, and yet if this book underlines one thing it is that the intensely emotional and physical sense of ‘England’ that now strikes such an unfashionably patriotic note in Brooke’s sonnets was, for the poets represented here, only deepened and broadened by the experience of war.

It is never a bad thing to be reminded that none of these poets was a pacifist — like Sassoon, the gentle Edmund Blunden won an MC for bravery; Wilfred Owen MC could boast to his mother that he had ‘fought like an angel’; ‘Make the name of poet terrible in just war,’ wrote that most unsoldierly of soldiers, Ivor Gurney; and even Isaac Rosenberg, probably the least likely soldier since Coleridge, opened himself as a poet to the full experience of the trenches — but this is something slightly different.

On the face of it no two poems could seem farther apart than Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ and Sassoon’s ‘Menin Gate’, but it was this sense of an endangered England — or the ‘England’ of his imagination, at least, the England he believed he had gone to war for — that fuelled Sassoon’s anger and sense of betrayal just as surely as it turned Edward Thomas into a poet or gave Ivor Gurney his voice. Gurney wrote in ‘I saw England — July Night’:

Home of Twelfth Night – Edward Thomas by Arras fallen,
Borrow and Hardy, Sussex tales out of Roman Heights callen.
No madrigals or field-songs to my all    reverent whim;
Till I got back I was dumb.

It is this England — the Georgian England of Gurney’s ‘lovely chatter of Buck’s voices’, the England of Fountains Abbey (‘Almost worth dying for!’ Owen told his mother), of Edward Thomas’s murdered badger (‘That most ancient Briton of English beasts’) — that runs like a thread through this collection. It reflects a feeling that has nothing to do with vulgar triumphalism, or the spirit of 1914 that found in Brooke its most eloquent voice and in Nichols his natural successor. There is nothing narrow, no hatred of the enemy in Charles Sorley’s poetry. ‘I hate not Germans, nor grow hot with love of Englishmen,’ Thomas could write,

But with best and meanest Englishmen
I am one in crying, God save England, lest
We lose what never slaves and cattle blessed.
The ages made her that made us from dust:
She is all we know and live by, and we trust
She is good and must endure, loving her so:
And as we love ourselves we hate her foe.

Not a formula that would contain an Isaac Rosenberg, but then any that does is going to be a lie. He is — as ever — the exception here that proves the rule, the outsider’s voice that underlines the essential ‘Englishness’ of the great body of war poetry. And if his presence here also exposes its limitations — coming across Rosenberg in a collection of this sort is rather like coming across a late Turner in an exhibition of English topographical watercolours — then, as Some Desperate Glory movingly shows, that does not much matter either.

Turn to the poems at the end of 1916, and you suddenly realise that the 21-year-old Sorley is missing. Move on another year, and Thomas is gone. Another 12 months and Rosenberg is dead, ‘Aftermath’ and there is no Owen. Difficult, in the face of that, to preserve much in the way of critical detachment.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16. Tel: 08430 600033. David Crane is the author of Empires of the Dead: How One Man’s Vision Led to the Creation of WWI’s War Graves.


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  • Terry Field

    The title is didactic and untrue. Some poets – the most incisive being Sassoon in my view – could not be intepreted as other than anti-war.
    The attempt to pump up the glory and underplay the human mincing machine is a valedictory wet dream for those who know the days of British military activity are at an end.
    And for myself – thank God they are gone for good.
    And to hell with the irresponsible jingoists.

    • Pootles

      I don’t think anyone is attempting to ‘pump up the glory’, just give a more historically accurate picture of how the combatant war writers saw the Great War and their role in it. Rather than list various texts you might consider, have you wondered why Sassoon was known as ‘Mad Jack’ and won the Military Cross, or that Owen also held the MC, and was killed in a brave attack just days before the end of the war? Think, too, about how Edmund Blunden attacked Robert Graves for ‘Goodbye’, which Blunden and other key combatant writers saw as being self-serving and one-sided.

      • Terry Field

        Yes, behaviour of men in war reflects their egos, competitive drives and group loyalties. We can all act bravely and we can all kill. That is what being male is all about. But the whole man considers his condition. These men were, I would contend, against the horror of war when they fully considered the matter.

        • Pootles

          I think that it is more complex than that, because the majority response of the British literary combatants was to present their experience and their understanding of the Great War ‘in the round’. They did not draw back from describing the horror of the Great War, but they also saw value in it, in their having fought in it, and in Britain having been a victor nation. It is, however, certainly true that writers like Blunden, Williamson, and Jones were unhappy about the drift to the Second World War.

          • Terry Field

            I will accept the greater complexity of your view. The poets are as varied as are other groups of people in their coming to terms with that war.
            I have not conceded often before, but the death toll requires serious honest endeavour and agreement when the truth is found. You did a better job of representing it than I did on the this occasion.
            Do not let this praise go to your head now……………

          • Pootles

            ‘Complexity’. That’s the word. I am too old for praise to go to my head (a couple of beers is enough), but thanks. Here’s something that might be of interest: http://www.history.org.uk/resources/general_resource_4824_71.html
            I was surprised that no-one else commented on this thread. Odd.

          • Terry Field

            Thank you for the link. I will look at it now.
            Have a good week-end.
            Boiled eggs and soldiers for me!

          • Warwick

            Pacificism and Jingoism, are they the only alternatives?

            Firstly, let’s agree that Jingoism is sickening. Then, along with retaining the ability to defend ourselves, it is necessary to explore strategy after strategy to prevent, avoid, postpone and finally render unacceptable the horrors of war in any particular situation.

            From what I gather, this is just what the opposing sides failed to do prior to the First World War.

            That’s understandable; policy and diplomacy were guided by jingoism.
            “Patriotism” is mostly just another word for jingoism.
            It has the same psychological and political value as the unquestioning and ferocious ecstasies of battle-frenzy that football fans give to “their” side.
            Primitive and sick.
            Sick and primitive.

            Civilized and mature peoples are supposed to possess a measure of self restraint and an ability to overcome disputes by fearless negotiation, which implies that one has the ability to recognize and acknowledge that one’s own side has faults and inadequacies.
            You would never know it if you read the histories and review the recruiting publicity of the time.

            So the First War poets could see the horrors of battle but they hadn’t seen the simplistic shortcomings of the policy makers of the time. That’s no reason we should repeat their failures.

          • Terry Field

            Thank you for your kind and thoughtful response. Much of you comment I agree with. The business of policy failure is still with us, however.
            I am in a minority who rejects the argument that to protect at home one must attack abroad
            Rather than confront the very nasty reality that we have huge numbers of immigrants who would like to damage and kill us, the ‘authorities’ (highly politicised and partial) put out propaganda to the effect that only a tiny number ‘are radicalised’ and we have to stop them in their tracks – in Afghanistan!
            For me, and many, the answer is to stop them in their tracks in Britain. It is not hard to do, but one has to tear up the fantasy of the celebrated multi-cultural society in order to make a start. And take some severe actions in response to imported violent actions.
            Or, be gutless, and fill the sanatoria with the wrecked bodies of our abused and explioted young people we turn into soldiers.
            That is why the issues we weep over in respect of 1914 – 1918 are still starkly relevant to us today.

          • Warwick

            Terry, of course we must take action.
            Of course we have to defend our civilization from Islam.
            You didn’t use the “I” word but obviously that’s what you had in mind.
            We have to defend with our letters, we have to defend with our votes, we have to defend with whatever technique show that we are a part of the civilized and humane society that rejects the fanaticism that is at the moment threatening us.

            We don’t want violence but we must still be prepared to fight.
            Paradoxically, the demonstration that we are ready to fight can often prevent prevent fighting.

            If Islamist think we are soft and spineless they will grab whatever they can, bit by bit.
            Polygamy here and sharia there.

            This is not the civilization that Thomas Paine and Locke and John Stuart Mill laboured to bring into existence.

            This is our rich heritage that we must be prepared to defend and defend and defend yet again.

          • Terry Field

            You and I may feel this; many may feel this.
            I suspect, however, that the Propaganda Ministry aka The Home Office and others have entirely managed the minds of well meaning young people who of course prefer goodwill to all.
            The influence of TV soap scripts and the like is one of their many Goebbels-like tricks; but they do much worse than that.
            Kids in all probability probably swallow the intellectually bankrupt nonsense that only a small number are ‘radicalised’ and most are really ‘just like everyone else’.
            I think few care about the 200 + years of advanced social and political thought that has been a contribution of Britain and other European states to the condition of humanity. Most know nothing, most do not want to know anything. They are chaff and the field is left open to the perverters of truth and the destroyers of a once exquisite civilisation.
            I am much more pessimistic than you are, I believe.

          • Warwick

            whenever I hear the government line that “only a few are radicalized” I grow angry just like you.

            But Terry, you are an eloquent man.
            You can express yourself with force.
            You are able to point to the truth.

            I know there are laws which forbid you to tell the truth in certain upfront ways, but there are ways around this.

            For example: there are huge numbers of Muslims in the UK, but you don’t find any competing in the women’s events at the Olympic Games.

            Why is that?

            Could it be that the Islamic laws and customs that keep women oppressed are not just the preserve of a few fanatics but the common currency in the entire Islamic population in Britain?

            Doesn’t this clearly demonstrate that the Islamic population in Britain has no intention of integrating with the larger society? That any young women in the Islamic community who has natural athletic talent will be denied the opportunity to express her talent and denied the opportunity to contribute to her country?

            This is a clear and irrefutable demonstration that the Islamic community as a whole is firmly stuck in the dark ages and is prepared to use ferocious force against anyone who would resist their primitive superstitions.

            This is just one aspect but there are hundreds more that ordinary, fair minded young people can easily grasp.

            Come on Terry, we know you can do it.


          • Terry Field

            If this is a ‘sting’ by Plod, then good day, plod, how are you today?
            If is not then, Warwick, I would agree that there is a serious and eternal bias against integration; the risk is the enraged population will also target others who are benign, of good will, and do integrate at a comfortable pace. An immediate example is hallal meat.
            The repulsive Blair who gave a derogation of the early 1950’s act that protected the rights of animals absolutely over religion has now, in effect, grouped Jews and Moslems together. As a result the barbarous practice causes aggressive anger against both groups. Yet the real difficulty does not come from the Jewish population, who accepted the animal protection act. Why? because they understand the eternal flexibility of law; the Torah and the Talmud gives them an understanding of mutability denied to most of us; not just Moslems.
            The pressure came from the Islamic immigrant activists; Blair, a man of plastic values, as his conversion to Rome also shows, chose to dump the most enlightened law and return us to barbarism.Lots of votes in it for the political prostitutes.
            Who cares about this.
            Nobody; or at least far too few.
            I am told much meat is sold to Kufar like me which is in fact Hallal.
            What a repulsive sewer of a world I have been forced into.
            Thank you Blair. Rot in hell.
            I respect Islam because many come to it voluntarily; I do not consider it compatible with ‘our’ civilisation, however. As for plod, he will enforce any dictatorship, or none, for money pensions and isolated status. They are now far too powerful, too corrupt, too political, too dangerous in Britian. The ex- attorney general called for a Royal Commission because he thinks them out of control. How much more worrying does it get than that?
            My country is in the most extreme danger; its values are so reduced, perverted and atrophied that freedom could entirely disappear.
            I am far from alone, but for evil to triumph it IS enough for good people to do nothing……..to stop it.

          • Warwick

            AH Terry, speaking of plod,
            did you hear about the Englishman who was at least charged and prosecuted, if not convicted, for displaying a splendid, English sense of humour?
            At about the time that Nelson Mandela was being taken in and out of hospital with a terminal illness that never quite got round to terminating, an entirely non-public-person sort of bloke posted on his facebook, or some other trivial place, this comment:
            “I’m having trouble with my computer; it takes so long to shut down I’m thinking of naming it Nelson Mandela

          • Kennybhoy

            “Pacificism and Jingoism, are they the only alternatives?”

            Have you read C S Lewis’ essay “Talking about Bicycles”?

            He posits four stages that apply to aspects of human experience. Unenchantment, Enchantment, Disenchantment, and Re-enchantment. Unenchantment and Disenchantment take a negative view of the aspect of life under discussion while Enchantment and Re-enchantment take a positive view.

            “Talking about bicycles,” said my friend, “I have been through the four ages. I can remember a time in early childhood when a bicycle meant nothing to me: it was just part of the huge meaningless background of grown-up gadgets against which life went on. Then came a time when to have a bicycle, and to have learned to ride it, and to be at last spinning along on one’s own, early in the morning, under trees, in and out of the shadows, was like entering Paradise. That apparently effortless and frictionless gliding—more like swimming than any other motion, but really most like the discovery of a fifth element—that seemed to have solved the secret of life. Now one would begin to be happy. But, of course, I soon reached the third period. Pedaling to and fro from school (it was one of those journeys that feel up-hill both ways) in all weathers, soon revealed the prose of cycling. The bicycle, itself, became to me what his oar is to a galley slave.”

            “But what was the fourth age?” I asked.

            “I am in it now, or rather I am frequently in it. I have had to go back to cycling lately now that there’s no car. And the jobs I use it for are often dull enough. But again and again the mere fact of riding brings back a delicious whiff of memory. I recover the feelings of the second age. What’s more, I see how true they were—how philosophical, even. For it really is a remarkably pleasant motion. To be sure, it is not a recipe for happiness as I then thought. In that sense the second age was a mirage. But a mirage of something.”

            “How do you mean?” said I.

            “I mean this. Whether there is, or whether there is not, in this world or in any other, the kind of happiness which one’s first experiences of cycling seemed to promise, still, on any view, it is something to have had the idea of it. The value of the thing promised remains even if that particular promise was false—even if all possible promises of it are false.”

            Lewis continues in more serious vein by applying this template first to romantic and sexual love and then to war…

            “Lets take an example that may interest you more. How about war? Most of our juniors were brought up Unenchanted about war. The Unenchanted man sees (quite correctly) the waste and cruelty and sees nothing else. The Enchanted man is in the Rupert Brook or Philip Sidney state of mind—he’s thinking of glory and battle-poetry and forlorn hopes and last stands and chivalry. Then comes the Disenchanted Age—say Siegfried Sassoon. But there is also a fourth stage, though very few people in modern England dare to talk about it. You know quite well what I mean. One is not in the least deceived: we remember the trenches too well. We know how much of the reality the romantic view left out. But we also know that heroism is a real thing, that all the plumes and flags and trumpets of the tradition were not there for nothing. They were an attempt to honour what is truly honourable: what was first perceived to be honourable precisely because everyone knew how horrible war is. And that’s where this business of the Fouth Age is so important.

            ‘How do you mean?’

            “Isn’t it immensely important to distinguish Unenchantment from Disenchantment – and Enchantment from Re-enchantment? In the poets for instance. The war poetry of Homer or The battle of Maldon, for example is Re-enchantment. You see in every line that the poet knows, quite as well as any modern, the horrible thing he is writing about. he celebrates heroism but he has paid the proper price for doing so. he sees the horror and yet sees also the glory. In the Lays of Ancient Rome, on the other hand, or in Lepanto (jolly as Lepanto is) one is still enchanted: the poets obviously have no idea what a battle is like. Similarly with Unenchantment and Disenchantment. You read an author in whom love is treated as lust and all war as murder—and so forth. But are you reading a Disenchanted man or only an Unenchanted man? Has the writer been through the Enchantment and come out on to the bleak highlands, or is he simply a subman who is free from the love mirage as a dog is free and free from the heroic mirage as a coward is free? If Disenchanted, he may have something worthwhile to say, though less than a Re-enchanted man. If Unenchanted, into the fire with his book. He is talking of what he doesn’t understand. But the great danger we have to guard against in this age is the Unenchanted man, mistaking himself for, and mistaken by others for, the Disenchanted man.”

            Excepted from “Talking About Bicycles” by C S Lewis

          • Warwick

            Kennybhoy, thank you for this post. It is wonderful.
            I have to consider it for a while before I reply, but I will reply.

            Thanks again.