Keating on the death of poet Mick Imlah and the rugby internationals from the British Isles who were among the millions slaughtered during the Great War
Today’s cricket post reminded me of the only other time in recent memory that I’d been enticed to read the Guardian’s sports pages. I’d parked the item in my draft posts over a year ago and then forgotten about it. Again, it was Frank Keating’s literary allusions that drew my eye to the page, along with the First World War reference. His Anthem for rugby’s doomed youth mourns both the death last year of the poet Mick Imlah and the rugby internationals from the British Isles who were among the millions slaughtered during the war. He quotes Imlah’s ’15-line sonnet London Scottish 1914, a panegyric to the three-score brothers in arms who volunteered to swap their Richmond turf for Belgian ditches – for three-quarters of them to die’:
Of that ill-balanced and fatigued fifteen
The ass selectors favoured to survive,
Just one, Brodie the prop, resumed his post.
The others sometimes drank to ‘The Forty-Five’:
Neither a humorous nor an idle toast.
The full text of poem can be found here. The claim that this fifteen-line poem is a sonnet provoked a challenge from Chris Warren – are there any other examples of this special kind of ‘sonnet’?
Today’s Service to Mark the Passing of the First World War Generation at 10:50 on Radio 4 (Long Wave only) will include a poem by the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. It’s called ‘Last Post’ and if you miss the programme you can find the text on the Times site. There’s more about today’s service on the BBC site.
Earlier this year, The Guardian printed some of the results of the new Laureate’s commission of war poetry for today under the title ‘Exit wounds’. At the time, she wrote: ‘Such lines are part of the English poetry reader’s DNA, injected during schooldays like a vaccine.’ In recognition of this, she opens her poem with words from Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘.
An email from a school this week asked for ‘poetry which expresses the humour of the infantry during the Great War’.
An email from a school this week asked for ‘poetry which expresses the humour of the infantry during the Great War’. I pointed out that though there are many books of war poetry, humour doesn’t get much coverage in the standard anthologies. There is of course the sardonic humour of someone like Sassoon in ‘The General‘. Kipling’s ‘Epitaphs of War’ are often sombre but also contain some sarcastic outbursts. (It would also be very illuminating for students to find out about Kipling’s personal involvement in the war effort and its aftermath.) You can read all his ‘Epitaphs’ online in the brief selection of poems I’ve put online here; they include background notes based on my volume in the York Notes Advanced series.
There is a good range of poetry in Martin Stephen’s anthology Never Such Innocence. He includes a lot of material that isn’t otherwise readily available in print, such as the anonymous ‘When this blasted war is over’ (to the tune of ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’). As for ‘fun’, try Rose Macaulay’s ‘Many Sisters to Many Brothers’ – she wasn’t a soldier but that’s the point. She writes: ‘Oh, it’s you that have the luck, out there in blood and muck…. But for me … a war is poor fun.’ It also features in Stephen’s collection, though I first came across this in a friend’s Second World War utility edition of Poems of Today, shown here, which indicates how popular this anthology for ‘boys and girls’ had remained since it was first published in 1915. You can find the text online at Project Gutenberg.
There’s plenty more online, of course. A good place to start is The Muse in Arms from 1917, ‘for the most part written in the field of action’, which is on the First World War.com site. A recent CD The Pity of War contains both music composed during the First World War by Elgar, Janacek and Debussy and a second disc of Wilfred Owen letters and poems read by Samuel West, interspersed with wartime songs – both sentimental and, at times, comic. (If the Amazon copies seem expensive, try the Orchid Classics site, where you can also find out how to download the album.) There are many more Great War links on the Literary Connections First World War pages.
The First World War is still providing material for poems for today
The First World War continues to haunt poets. The first contribution to BBC Radio 3’s Poems for Today in their Poetry Season 2009 was broadcast this morning on the Breakfast programme. It was, Sara Mohr-Pietsch told us, recorded by Andrew Motion just before he relinquished the post of Poet Laureate. It’s a personal and not a ceremonial work, in which Motion recalls when he was 17 and the poems of Rupert Brooke were ‘the only ones I had read in their entirety’. Brooke’s collected works had been presented to him at school and the leather-bound volume took pride of place in his parents’ ‘whirligig bookcase’ (this was the word Andrew Motion actually used, as I found out when I caught the poem a second time round over lunch, not ‘hurdy-gurdy’ as I put this morning: must pay more attention). With two friends he visited the island of Skyros to find Brooke’s grave – and the heat on the harsh hillside, he says, meant the ill-equipped English schoolboys almost joined their hero in early graves. Even in 1969 this devotion to Brooke (‘who died,’ the grave records, ‘for the deliverance of Constantinople from the Turks’) must have seemed quaint English nostalgia. Read more about Brooke’s death and see a picture of the grave on Wikipedia and Poet’s Graves.
You should be able to listen again to all forty Poems for Today readings on the BBC site for the next year, though at present there are no recordings available. So make do with Ian McMillan’s more cheerful collaborative poem ‘I pull the curtains wide and feel the morning on my face’, composed with the help of listeners this morning in a new form he’s calling the ‘Pietsch’ in honour of the Breakfast presenter.
Poems of Today, incidentally, was a very popular collection first published in 1915 and much reprinted; I have a leather-bound copy on my shelves dating from 1925 and a school edition from 1942. The preface tells us: ‘This book has been compiled in order that boys and girls, already perhaps familiar with the great classics of the English speech, may also know something of the newer poetry of their own day. Most of the writers are living, and the rest are still vivid memories among us, while one of the youngest, almost as these words are written, has gone singing to lay down his life for his country’s cause.’ That ‘singing’ young poet was, of course, Brooke. There’s more about the collection, and where to find it online, on Literary Connections.
More about the new Poet Laureate, including exclusive revelations, in a later post!
Appearing on Radio 4’s ‘Beyond Belief’ provokes thoughts about Great War poetry
I found myself (as though it were outside my volition) interviewed for today’s Beyond Belief on BBC Radio 4. As the filling in the middle of the sandwich, I didn’t hear the panel’s comments until the broadcast. I’m not entirely sure I agree with the comment that the First World War changed the public perception of chivalry and therefore of the Crusades, but the point about the sentimental invocation of a romanticised past is quite right, as can be heard in The Volunteer by Herbert Asquith (1881-1947), who was son of the British Prime Minister:
And now those waiting dreams are satisfied
From twilight to the halls of dawn he went;
His lance is broken; but he lies content
With that high hour, in which he lived and died.
And falling thus, he wants no recompense,
Who found his battle in the last resort
Nor needs he any hearse to bear him hence,
Who goes to join the men of Agincourt.
The same Great War site has a volume called The Holy War by the Irish poet and novelist Katharine Tynan which very explicitly portrays death in the War as religious sacrifice. For example, the Dedication concludes:
In this most glorious day and year
That gives your man to die for men.
A rich harvest of material for those interested in the literature of the First World War
Armistice Day this year has seen a particularly rich harvest of material for those interested in the literature of the First World War, coming as it does 90 years after the last shots were fired.
The Guardian‘s excellent series of booklets, with a wallchart on propaganda, provided a very accessible overview with plenty of examples from poetry, reminiscences and art as well as the historical background. The complete series, or missing booklets, can now be ordered here. Much of the material in the booklets can also be found online, here along with other material on the war. The Guardian also carried a moving interview with Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier who fought in the trenches, by Andrew Motion, and a short video on the Battle of the Somme. Oxford University has also just launched a much enhanced version of its excellent First World War Poetry Digital Archive.
At our consortium meeting yesterday, Nadine was an enthusiastic advocate of All Quiet on the Home Front, ‘An Oral History of Life in Britain During the First World War’, by Steve Humphries and Richard van Emden, which she praised for the valuable first-hand accounts to balance the poetry from the front line. Someone reminded us of the value of the approach in Oh! What a Lovely War – script from 1967 and film version in 1969 (remembering the context in which it was produced). And I didn’t even have time to mention, or play extracts from, The Pity of War: a collection of elegiac First World War works by Elgar, Janacek, Debussy with a second disc of Wilfred Owen letters and poems read by Samuel West, interspersed with wartime songs. For literature teachers, the second disk alone is worth the price.
Finally, for a broader overview, I can commend James Anderson Winn’s The Poetry of War, a wide-ranging study of war poetry from Homer to Bruce Springsteen. My review in NATE’s English Drama Media can be found here.
St George stalks the streets – with artificial roses
It is not only phonics that are synthetic these days – even the English rose is artificial. The one you can see here is an example. The English rose is not a reference to the daughter who is wearing it (delightful though she is, of course) but to the flower. Driving through Mottram in Longdendale on Saturday (19 April, so it was not even St George’s Day), we were greeting with the surreal sight of a man dressed as St George (that is, the St George of Daily Express mastheads and comic books) handing out red roses to drivers waiting at the traffic lights. Continue reading “Synthetic St George: is this the end of chivalry?”
The period running up to Armistice Day (November 11th) usually produces a little crop of poignant stories, including both official British Legion publicity to news stories deemed apposite at this time of year. The Poppy Appeal this year featured McCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, the original inspiration for the adoption of artificial poppies after the Great War (at first, it seems, by an American woman who arranged for artificial poppies to be made by women in war-ravaged northern France to help provide for children who had suffered because of the war). The Legion understandably wanted to use McCrae to support the Poppy appeal, not his appeal on behalf of the dead to ‘take up our quarrel with the foe’. Background from the British Legion or, for an alternative view, the Peace Pledge Union (this link is to the education section on the Great War: Sassoon was an early sponsor of the PPU).
Two memoirs by men who served in the war were in the news. Pipe-smoking Captain Alexander Stewart recounted the “Horror and dark humour of the Somme” according to the Guardian. Better-known J B Priestley wrote of ”trenches full of heads’ in his letters from the front, again reported in The Guardian.
Two poets also drew re-evaluations: Ivor Gurney, whom Adam Thorpe describes as ‘one of the finest of his age’ in The Guardian’s review pages. Before the month was out, Vernon Scannell had died; he served in the Second World War but wrote movingly about the First in ‘The Great War’. Alan Brownjohn’s obituary appeared in The Guardian, as did a less predictable glowing tribute from Simon Jenkins, who was taught by Scannell and concludes: ‘Scannell was even better than a good poet. He could teach.’
Finally, the BBC carried the touching story of how 89 years after Stanley Cubiss drowned when HMS Opal sank off the coast of the Orkney Islands in 1918, his wedding ring was returned to the family by divers who found it at the bottom of the sea.