Even now most discussion of Second World War poetry cannot do without reference back to that of the First; and it's true that Keith Douglas was always conscious of Isaac Rosenberg behind his shoulder, Alun Lewis of Edward Thomas. But the idea of modern warfare as one thing and of poetic response to it as another seems, in retrospect, almost Churchillian in its fixedness. Back then, although we loved the old rogue for the rodomontade and sheer cheek of his rhetoric, we got rid of him and his Party as quickly as possible afterwards: real life has few, if any, eternal verities. A British conscript Army at the end of the 1930s necessarily included hunger marchers, stay-down miners, Left Book Clubbers, black-coffin bearers, China campaigners, India Leaguers, Howard Leaguers, associates of Artists International, International Brigaders, Trotskyites, Communists, pacifists failed by their tribunals. The playwright David Hare declared recently that working-class conscripts now met 'the officer class' for the first time and rebelled; but plenty had met the people issuing orders, at least since Peterloo. Moreover, an Army largely unemployed except in training or retreat found much for disaffection and revolutionary aspiration to feed on. By 1943 my own training battalion at Trowbridge boasted a vigorous 'club' of agitators: not particularly effective, it's true, but not particularly clandestine either (the journalist and historian John Prebble's experience was identical); and by June 1944 large parts of the Army had developed from an anti-Fascism more consciously deliberated than ever Churchill's was, through a famous browned-offness, to something like specifically socialist war aims. The eventual Labour landslide of 1945 was in this sense something long considered and bloodily fought for. Which is not to say that each soldier's attitude was similar, only that many would find no point of contact with the brilliant, death-haunted, swashbuckling poems of Doug-las, for instance - nor he with their ideas, though he'd heard of them right enough. In one of the last letters to survive he wrote, in fine fettle, to Edmund Blunden: 'For me it is simply a case of fighting against the Nazi regime. After that, unless there is a revolution in England, I hope to depart for sunnier and less hypocritical climates.' More often, it's true, he wrote that the soldiers with him did not know why they were there or what they were fighting for.
LRB 4 October 2001 | PDF Download