Authors: Max Egremont
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For Simon Head
We know the war through their poetry. Siegfried Sassoon's scathing satires; Wilfred Owen's compassion; Edmund Blunden's gentle but shocking lyricism; Julian Grenfell's joy in battle; Rupert Brooke's surge of patriotism; Isaac Rosenberg's mystical vision: all these have shaped how we see the western front. Then there's the tragic sacrifice: Brooke and Grenfell dead in their twenties, Charles Sorley killed when hardly out of his teens, Edward Thomas older but not yet three years into his time as a poet, Robert Nichols breaking down during the battle of Loos, Owen and Rosenberg victims of the war's last year. All this makes for a powerful myth in which a poet's imagined life can be as moving as his poems.
The poets of the First World War have a memorial in Westminster Abbey, recognizing their place in Britain's last century as a world power. But some historians believe that much of the best-known poetry of the war is defeatist, symbolizing loss of will, even decline â that it misses the spirit that led to victory. The poets have been accused of contributing to a climate of appeasement that led to a second world war. Critics have said that their work is too dominated by its subject, leading to a kind of lyrical journalism.
What remains true is that they were made by the war and then made a lasting vision of it. Their lives reflect its emotion and its history; their work shows how it was, for them, to be there. They also show some of the hopes and disappointments of early twentieth-century Britain.
In this book, I have chosen eleven poets who fought. I have set their poems in the year that they were written. Rupert Brooke and Charles Sorley are there strongly at the start of the war; Sassoon enters after his first experience of the trenches at the end of 1915; Isaac Rosenberg's war also starts in late 1915; Edward Thomas writes from England, not reaching the front until some two and a half months before his death in 1917; Wilfred Owen isn't represented until the war's last two years; Ivor Gurney and Edmund Blunden have many poems in the Aftermath chapter, a reflection of how long their war lasted. Some poets feature less: Julian Grenfell because he wrote only one memorable war poem; Robert Nichols through his erratic quality, although I admire some of his work and wanted to include a poet thought of at the time as a new Byron.
I began writing about the first two decades of the twentieth century some forty years ago. The First World War featured in my books about the soldier and writer Sir Edward Spears and about the politician Arthur Balfour, and particularly in my biography of Siegfried Sassoon. In the 1980s and 1990s I wrote novels set in contemporary Britain, but the characters felt the two wars â the First and the Second â strongly in their lives, either in their own memories or in their country's idea of itself. Having also written about Germany, I believe that for Britain â especially for quite prosperous Britons (which many of the war poets were) â there was something uniquely shocking in the reality of the First War. For almost a century, most British lives had been more sheltered from threat and conflict than their European counterparts, even if the nation was becoming less confident as the twentieth century began.
Britain's recent wars were part of my childhood during the 1950s and 1960s. The First World War memorials at my schools and at Oxford astonished me with their quantity of names. I leafed through old bound copies of the wartime
Illustrated London News
that we had at home, awed by the many photographs of officers who'd been killed (other ranks didn't feature) and drawings of artists' ideas of the Somme or Ypres.
Both my grandfathers had fought: one in the Royal Navy, the other as a young officer in France and Belgium. To them it had been the Kaiser's War; they didn't speak much about it, although the name showed whom they blamed. It was the poets who evoked the war most vividly for me when, as a schoolboy, I first read them. They gave dramatic and clear shape, and emotion, to the change from enthusiasm to pitiful weariness â from Brooke to Sassoon and Owen: a reflection of how an adolescent might see the arc of life.
Later I learned that Brooke's enthusiasm was fading as he sailed towards the Dardanelles, that Owen's last letters to his mother from the front said that there was no place where he would rather be. Trying to fathom their feelings and experiences has become one of my obsessions as I searched for an intimate glimpse of what had been perhaps the most significant and far-reaching European event of the twentieth century.
The poets in this book range from the aristocratic Julian Grenfell to Isaac Rosenberg, the son of a poor Jewish pedlar, and Ivor Gurney, whose father was a tailor. Most of them were uneasy in the pre-war world. Many were formed by those powerful institutions, the late-Victorian public schools (or, more accurately, private schools). Some saw war as a rescue.
Those who survived couldn't leave the war. Robert Graves wrote a brilliant memoir of it,
Goodbye to All That
, and then left England, as if to shake off the past, disowning his war poems. Yet the trenches stayed in his dreams until he died in his eighties. Ivor Gurney and Edmund Blunden wrote some of their best war poems after 1918. Neither Robert Nichols nor Siegfried Sassoon again found poetry strong enough to match what they'd written about the western front.
Other poets wrote about the war â Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, Wilfred Gibson, Laurence Binyon â yet saw no fighting. Through these eleven, you can see the war's course through their writing and their lives. All were warriors.
T LEAST ONE POET
had been looking forward to war. In the summer of 1913, Julian Grenfell was a twenty-five-year-old army officer returning to his regiment in South Africa after some months of home leave. Grenfell had the best that Edwardian Britain could offer. He'd joined the Royal Dragoons, a cavalry regiment, in 1910, after Balliol College, Oxford, where he had gone from Eton. He had glamour; clever, strong and handsome, he was a hard-playing sportsman. But there was also violence; he boxed ferociously, he chased a Jewish millionaire undergraduate round the quad with a stock whip and beat up a cab driver who overcharged him. The Balliol authorities, perhaps in awe of his aristocratic status, brushed off complaints from other students about his rowdiness.
Yet Julian Grenfell was no mindless hearty. His mother, Lady Desborough, was a renowned hostess; her children grew up with cabinet ministers, writers and generals. At Balliol, he read Greats, or classics and philosophy; he drew and wrote essays challenging the complacency of his parents' world â that of conventionally cultured Edwardian high society. Resentment of the power of this world, and its relentless pressure, drove him to have a nervous breakdown. Apparently trapped by his position and success within it, and its strong, predictable expectations, he thought of suicide. The violence, the loaded shotgun beside him during his convalescence in his parents' country house, betrayed anger and despair. All this was before he became a soldier.
Why had Grenfell joined the Edwardian army? The Boer War, some thirteen years earlier, had demonstrated how stupidly led this army was. Rudyard Kipling might glorify âTommy', the longsuffering private soldier, but it was harder to praise the High Command, although Kipling did write a poem about Lord Roberts, the British general who had broken the chain of disasters against the Boers. Julian Grenfell â intelligent and brave â liked the wild country of India and South Africa but told a friend that he âhated' the army. What he wanted was to break out. But the Grenfells were so glorified, so sated, that it was hard to know what might be better. Only a complete upheaval â exile, collapse, even death â could bring it all down and give an alternative.
A year later, in June 1914, a young Jewish man also arrived in South Africa. Isaac Rosenberg, like Julian Grenfell, painted and wrote poetry. But Rosenberg came from an atmosphere of greater intellectual freedom among immigrants in London's Whitechapel. When Grenfell announced that he thought of leaving the army to study art in Paris, his family mocked him; this was not what the eldest son of Lord Desborough did. Rosenberg may have been proud that âNobody ever told me what to read, or ever put poetry in my way,' but his father, a Jewish pedlar who had fled Lithuania to escape conscription in the Russian army, was a cultured man. Barnett Rosenberg had trained for the rabbinate and wrote poetry. Isaac's parents were both pacifists.
They were also very poor. At the age of fourteen, Isaac was apprenticed to an engraver, which he hated. He went to evening classes at Birkbeck College, wrote verses influenced by Swinburne, Rossetti and Francis Thompson, and looked back to Keats, Shelley and an earlier engraver and poet, William Blake. In 1911, rich Jewish patrons paid for him to study at the Slade School of Fine Art alongside the artists David Bomberg and Christopher Nevinson. Yiddish had been Isaac Rosenberg's first language; as late as 1913, wanting to enter for an art prize while at the Slade, he was unsure if he was a British subject. Like Julian Grenfell, he felt trapped by what he called âthe fiendish persistence of the coil of circumstance'. Yet he thought, âit is the same with all people no matter what the condition'.
Grenfell and Rosenberg grew up in an increasingly anxious Britain. The country still had the empire but faced civil unrest at home and competition abroad. Hysteria could burst out, as when, in 1900, the relief of Mafeking â where the Boers had besieged a British garrison for months â set off wild celebrations, at which the young Edward Thomas caught a venereal infection. The disease blighted his final exams at Oxford, perhaps making him miss the first-class degree and fellowship of his college that would have given enough financial security for him to escape grinding work as a hack writer.
Britain wasn't a static society. There was much movement and desire for change during the decade before 1914, although this was hard to see from the fortress of Julian Grenfell's background. Virginia Woolf believed that the world changed in 1910, because of French post-impressionist art and Viennese psychoanalysis. In 1913, Siegfried Sassoon went night after night, usually alone, to the Russian ballet, watched Richard Strauss conducting the
Legend of Joseph
or heard Schoenberg's
, feeling mystified and overcome by âthat yearning exotic music' and its sense of âthe unknown want' that in Sassoon's case was âdeep and passionate love'. He and Robert Graves wrote admiringly to Edward Carpenter, upper-class rebel and pioneer of homosexual freedom; Wilfred Owen broke down before the demands of evangelical Christianity; Rupert Brooke joined the Fabians; Ivor Gurney fell into depression; Isaac Rosenberg met revolutionaries; Charles Sorley wanted to work with the poor; Grenfell and Edward Thomas yearned for death.