The Great War was the war of the great war poets. Was 'the war to end all wars' also the war to end all war poetry? The best part of Jon Stallworthy's introduction to his Oxford Book of War Poetry is a discussion of the chivalric ideal in the British public school classes of the 19th century. 'Honour the charge' makes the cavalrymen of the Light Brigade into Arthurian heroes; 'Noble Six Hundred' places them in the tradition of the three hundred Spartans commemorated in Simonides' epigram on Thermopylae. For Sir Henry Newbolt there is no difference between the words of the school cricket captain with 'Ten to make and the match to win' and those of the schoolboy rallying the ranks when 'the Gatling's jammed and the Colonel dead.' At the beginning of the First World War young men were honoured to 'Play up! play up!' The Great War poets derive some part of their power and bitterness from the gulf between this idealised chivalric vision and the actuality of the hell they inhabit in the trenches. The poems strive to dislodge the ideal from the mind of the reader; the force of contrast is crucial to their effect. Flanders field was the very opposite of those fields across which the cavalry rode. Yet it was still a field. Many First World War poems - like many passages of the best prose arising out of the war - owe their poignancy to the fact that immediately behind the static lines there were fields with skylarks overhead that reincarnated rural England. The juxtaposition of Somme and Severn is at the heart of Ivor Gurney's work (which is under-represented in Stallworthy's anthology). Edward Thomas's poems (which are very sensitively represented) rarely engage directly with the war: they approach it through the England that will be missed by the departing soldier, denuded by the absence of the departed.
LRB 6 December 1984 | PDF Download