I’m currently struggling with verse composition, so it’s hardly surprising that I’ve decided to give it a miss for a while and talk about other people’s poems. I like a wide range of poetry, but I always seem to drift back to the verse of the two world wars. Perhaps it’s the palpable tension between form and subject, particularly evident in pieces from the First War; perhaps its the intensity of the images, or the sheer depths of the horror. Perhaps I’m just morbid. The point is that I have been for some time what the title says: a guest in Death’s kingdom.

‘Death’s Kingdom’ is a section heading in one of my favourite books: Brian Gardner’s Up the Line to Death: the War Poets, 1914-18 (Methuen, 1964). It and its companion The Terrible Rain are out of print at the moment, but if you’re lucky you can still find them through the magic of the Internet. The phrase refers to Nightfall by Herbert Asquith, which was written at Sanctuary Wood near Ypres in 1917.

Hooded in angry mist, the sun goes down:
Steel-gray the clouds roll out across the sea:
Is this a kingdom? Then give Death the crown,
For here no emperor has won, save He.

The familiar names are all present: Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg and Robert Graves (he of I, Claudius fame, whom J.R.R. Tolkien once described as “an Ass”). Some of the other famous names, however, are not those that one would necessarily expect to find in this context: A.A. Milne, who was always disappointed that people only knew him for Winnie the Pooh, wrote these lines.

Same old trenches, same old view,
Same old rats as blooming tame,
Same old dug-outs, nothing new,
Same old smell, the very same,
Same old bodies out in front,
Same old strafe from two till four,
Same old scratching, same old ‘unt,
Same old bloody war.

Thomas Hardy had completed all of his novels by 1897, so he’s usually remembered as a nineteenth-century writer; but he was writing poetry and short stories until his death in 1928.  He has three poems in the collection, sadly not including I Looked Up from My Writing, which is my favourite of his poems from this period and manages to be poignant while hardly mentioning the war. Channel Firing opens the collection, a dark foreshadowing of things to come. It imagines the effect on the rural dead of hearing a naval gunnery practice and mistaking it for the Day of Judgement. God’s voice reassures them, and offers criticism.

‘All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christés sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.

But this anthology isn’t about presenting big names. I have a collected works of Wilfred Owen anyway, so I’m not sorry to see only his better-known work among that of lesser-known poets. One such is Francis Ledwidge, who was killed in action in 1917.

It is too late now to retrieve
A fallen dream, too late to grieve
a name unmade, but not too late
To thank the gods for what is great;
A keen-edged sword, a soldier’s heart,
Is greater than the poet’s art.
And greater than the poet’s fame
A little grave that has no name

I find that one a little martial for my taste, but this highlights the mainspring of the tragedy in these poems. These men weren’t unwilling conscripts: so many of them left school and university with heads full of Virgil and Horace, and marched straight into a human abbatoir. This was what Wilfred Owen was driving at when he quoted Horace in Dulce et Decorum est, which inevitably is featured in this volume. I shan’t quote from it, because everyone knows it already. This classical education, which encouraged verse composition, gives rise to moments of elegiac beauty, like this from Leslie Coulson’s From the Somme. He was killed in 1916.

A singer once, I now am fain to weep.
Within my soul I feel strange music swell,
Vast chants of tragedy too deep – too deep
For my poor lips to tell.

Another casualty, killed in 1918, was R.B. Marriott-Watson, who wrote:

For some go early, and some go late
(A dying scream on the evening air)
And who is there that believes in Fate
As a soul goes up in the sunset flare?

In the end, though, the old favourites prove their worth again. Isaac Rosenberg’s Break of Day in the Trenches gives a vision of the long calms between the great assaults, when a rat might seem a fit companion. His one-sided conversation with it turns to a casual observation that has achieved literary immortality.

What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver – what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

Rosenberg was another who didn’t live to see the war end.

When I was a lot younger, I tried writing poetry about the First War, largely inspired by Owen. I’ve stopped doing that now, because I can imagine battalions of ghostly critics, Tolkien among them, shaking their heads in disapproval and reminding me that I wasn’t there; I can’t know. You can only catch a glimpse of what they experienced from what they wrote, and this sort of poetry only works properly when it speaks with the voice of experience. I wouldn’t want to offend the ghost of Siegfried Sassoon: he could be biting. I’ll end with one of his scathing attacks on the jingoistic public, Base Details.

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. ‘Poor young chap,’
I’d say – ‘I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die – in bed.

Hooded in angry mist, the sun goes down:
Steel-gray the clouds roll out across the sea:
Is this a kingdom? Then give Death the crown,
For here no emperor has won, save He.

Advertisements