Are poets especially well-suited to write about war?
I don’t think poets are uniquely suited to writing about war. Of course there have been wonderful novels, wonderful documentaries, even very fine plays. RC Sheriff’s play, “Journey’s End.” It is a searing and brilliant account of what it was like to be living in a forward trench in the Great War. I think literature generally has been a huge educator. There’s no doubt at all that for most of my generation and maybe the next generation, what they know about the Great War is much more derived from the writers than from the historians, or the filmmakers, or the novelists.
* Passchendaele is the name that British soldiers gave to the battle at Passchendaele Ridge in Belgium during the First World War.
I mean they might have read All Quiet on the Western Front; they might have seen the film, but they’ve all read Owen and Sassoon at school and they’ve read Robert Graves’ memoirs Goodbye to All That, and Sassoon’s memoirs. Writers have had a very, very considerable educational impact in British society.
My sense it’s been less so in American society, but then that’s understandable. America’s a long way from Europe. And so I think writers generally have found war an absorbing topic and something which has engaged all their strongest passions.
What the poets have is that because poetry is a very distilled form of writing, it’s very compact, you know you can write a poem like Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” where in about six lines you can capture a whole life. And someone can learn that poem, or be hit and moved by that poem and carry it with him or her in a way that you can’t perhaps carry a whole novel, or a whole memoir. I think much of the impact that poetry has had, and one hopes will continue to have, is that it’s rather like, I suppose, an armor-piercing shell.
Unlike an ordinary shell which just explodes, an armor-piercing shell goes right through everything to reach its target, and a really good poem has that sort of sharpness and projectile force. It goes right into the imagination of the reader, who says, “Wow!” Look at “Decorum Est” or “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” You read those poems, and you can’t ever forget them.
Whereas moved as I have been by Sassoon’s Sherston’s Progress trilogy and Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War, I couldn’t give you a very full account of them. There’s a moment in Blunden, a brilliant moment actually, of the poet as memoirist, where he is going along his trench and a young lance corporal is making tea, and he wishes him a good tea and he goes around the corner.
Then there’s a sort of dull thud and a shell has landed, and someone’s started shouting, so he goes back again and the lance corporal isn’t there, and there’s a black mess on the parapet. Under the duckboard there’s an eye. When the eye of the reader meets the eye of the soldier under the duckboard that’s something you don’t forget.
And that’s what I think poets are uniquely equipped to do. They see symbolic quintessential details very vividly, and they have the words that can transfer that impression with equal vividness to the reader. When you read about that eye under the duckboard you feel the same horror which Blunden himself felt having talked to this soldier three minutes before, and his eye is staring at him from under the duckboard.
What changes from The Iliad to the 19th Century?
I think poetry, the poetry of war let us say, starts with the Old Testament and with The Iliad, and then it goes through to The Aeneid. When it first reaches the shores of what is now England, Anglo-Saxon poetry has the same sort of chivalric code.
You are reading about the heroic actions of heroes who are almost all of noble birth. They are normally horsemen, and their business is fighting; that’s what they do. And this ethos continues, I believe, through the Norman Conquest when the language undergoes its wonderful mutation.
Anglo-Saxon literature, Anglo-Saxon language, is very gritty and specific, with lots of short, tough words. When it meets the long, resonant, polysyllables of Anglo-Norman—of Norman-French—you get this wonderful confluence of two languages, making the English that we now speak. And with the French element comes a highly sophisticated cultural tradition in which there are many long, heroic poems, like the “Chanson de Roland,” and a whole code of honor and military virtues as exemplified by a whole range of heroes.
Then of course the first major author in what we now think of as English would be Chaucer, who was a soldier, and Chaucer writes The Knight’s Tale which is the tale of one of these elegant, heroic, gentlemanly knights on horseback, whose son is a squire also on horseback. The poets who follow him—a surprising number, actually—were themselves soldiers. John Donne fought in two expeditions. You have the cavalier poets—the word cavalier coming from horse in the chivalric tradition—and Lovelace, famous for his poem Lucasta:
“To Lucasta, Going to the Wars” by Lovelace
Tell me not (Sweet) I am unkinde
That from the Nunnery
Of thy chaste breast, and quiet minde,
To War and Armes I flie.
True ; a new Mistresse now I chase,
The first Foe in the Field ;
And with a stronger Faith imbrace
A Sword, a Horse, a Shield.
Yet this Inconstancy is such,
As you too shall adore ;
I could not love thee (Deare) so much,
Lov'd I not Honour more.
This continues, and we hear nothing of the foot soldiers; the ordinary people who actually would have had to bear the brunt of the battle. In the Anglo-Saxon wars you would have the nobles, the earls, the aldermen, and you would have those other front-line soldiers. We hear nothing about them at all; we don’t hear from them. We hear sometimes a bit about them but not from them.
This begins to change, and certainly it has changed by the time of the American Civil War, when in a quite different culture you have most noticeably, Walt Whitman, writing in a hospital. And for the first time really, the focus is not on heroic actions so much as on the result of actions, heroic or un-heroic—wounded people. And when they’re wounded, bandaged, and bleeding in a hospital ward you don’t know whether they’re aristocrats or foot soldiers.
Whitman went to a hospital to tend to his wounded brother and wrote these wonderful, very moving poems about ordinary soldiers suffering the effects of war. Civil war is always much more painful and uglier than international wars because people are driven by a frenzy to, in a sense, kill, murder their own kind. Something of that extra intensity is, I think, present in Whitman’s poems and the work of other very fine poets of the American Civil War.
And then you find this slightly shifting emphasis in Tennyson’s famous poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” where a heroic action is celebrated. He’s praising the courage of the soldiers, some of whom are officers and some of whom are just ordinary horsemen, but someone has blundered. There’s not an outright endorsement of the action at all. It’s a terrible mistake, but the soldiers who have had to live and die with that terrible mistake have shown courage, which he celebrates in the poem.
That is in the Crimean War, and then you get to the Boer War, which was the first sort of real war the British had fought for quite a long time. There had been endless frontier campaigns where the British had overwhelming strength and would almost always come home victorious.
The Boer War was different, and the big shift is clearly visible when Thomas Hardy cycles down to Southampton to see the soldiers embark for South Africa. A tremendously important change was discernible there because of the Education Acts of 1870 and 1876. The British Army that sailed for South Africa in 1899 was the first literate army in history. For the first time the people who can write home and write about what they’re enduring are not only the officers but the men too.
There’s a tremendous outpouring of writing from soldiers and war correspondents in the Boer War: diaries, letters, and lots of poems. The poems almost all sound like Rudyard Kipling, who was a correspondent there and whose poems were already very famous. Kipling at this time and shortly afterwards—Kipling follows Hardy in this—celebrates the achievement of the common soldier.
So at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century you get this shift, which reflects, of course, the rise of democracy in western countries, the interest shifting from the aristocracy to the ordinary people. Kipling’s poem “Tommy,” for example, is a wonderful ringing endorsement of the ordinary common solider.
At the same time Houseman, whose brother was killed in the South African war, writes “The Shropshire Lad” about grenadiers and other soldiers, and celebrates the death of ordinary people.
Then of course, the most famous poem of all would be Thomas Hardy’s “Drummer Hodge,” Hodge being a quintessential English country name. Hodge is a boy. He’s not even a man—he’s only 16 or something— and he’s not even a soldier. He’s a drummer, a musician. He goes off to this country he has probably never heard of before and is killed in South Africa.
Hardy, far from endorsing the undertaking of the war—I think Hardy was actually against the Boer war—is intensely aware of the effect that deaths in South Africa have on families in England. In his poems about the soldiers embarking, his eye focuses on the white handkerchiefs waving from the key as the wives and children see their fathers and husbands going, some of whom will not return.
And Houseman, Hardy, and Kipling, with this new focus on ordinary soldiers, mark a very important shift. That was is over in 1902. 1914 is only twelve years later, and you would have thought that people would have learned the lessons of The Boer War, but they haven’t. When the Great War starts, both in Berlin and in London, there is this extraordinary sort of gaiety and exaltation. In London, crowds were shouting, “To Berlin!” and in Berlin they were shouting, “To London!”
Rupert Brooke captured the mood of that curious exaltation in 1914 with the poem to which he gave the rather odd paradoxical title “Peace.” It begins, “Now God be thanked who has matched us with His hour, and caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping.” He thanks God for the outbreak of war, war which has in a sense woken the people up.
Philip Larkin many years later captures the mood beautifully in a poem called MCMXIV, the initials standing for 1914, in which his camera focuses on the queues outside the recruiting offices, with the men grinning as if it were all an August bank holiday lark, as if they’re going on holiday.
Well of course that mood changed most markedly, I think, with the Battle of the Somme in July, 1916. Up to that point the first poets of the Great War have almost all been to public schools, and their education has consisted in large measure of study of the classics. As late as 1905, the entire teaching force at Eton taught classics.
Moving on from the First World War to the Second World War, the best, certainly the best-known, British poet of the Second World War is a poet called Keith Douglas, who came up to Oxford in 1938, went to Merton College where he was tutored by Edmund Blunden, who was then a medaled hero and poet of the First World War. Douglas learned a great deal from Blunden.
Blunden was already the editor of Wilfred Owen’s poems. Blunden, who had fought through the Great War, won the Military Cross, survived, and written wonderful poems about the war and one of the most moving memoirs Undertones of War, has as his pupil and student Keith Douglas, to whom he introduces the poems of Wilfred Owen that he, Blunden, is now editing. And in 1940 Keith Douglas enlists, signs up, and has his photograph taken. Around his photograph he writes “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” And in some of his early poems about the war—actually one rather important one written before the war—you have a battlefield scene in the classical setting.
Blunden was a classicist too, so the next war starts with not quite the tunes of glory that you had at the start of the First World War, but just something like that in the world and the person of the man who was to become arguably the finest British poet of the Second World War, who then went on to fight in the cavalry in the tank battles of the El Alamein battle.
Douglas, too—rather like Blunden—wrote a wonderful memoir, a book called Alamein to Zem Zem. And his poems about the war in the desert reach back to some of the earlier poems in that he has an interestingly bifocal vision. Keith Douglas was himself sort of a natural foot soldier but with aspirations to be a cavalryman, and in one of these crack cavalry regimens he was able to see the heroism and the sort of courage that Tennyson celebrated in “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in the behavior of his commanding officers of his troop.
But at the same time he was able to see how anachronistic and how foolish they were. They were brave, but they were very stupid, and his poems wonderfully catch both of these aspects.
On Poets Bearing Witness
In the early days most civilians would have had very little experience with war. England was not invaded between 1066 and World War Two, so the citizenry had no experience with invasion. But T.S. Elliot, Edith Sitwell, and Louis MacNeice all write about the fire-bombing of London. They write with first-hand experience, and they write very powerfully about that.
A fair number of middle-class women went to France as VAD’s, as nurses. They had to be middle-class women because they had to pay their own fare, and if they were working-class women they couldn’t do that. A lot of women worked in munitions factories, which was very bad for them, and the chemicals discolored their skin. A lot of these women worked at or near the front in the First World War, and one or two of them wrote very powerful poems.
A woman called May Cannon wrote a very powerful and moving poem called “Rouxant.” She ran a canteen for the soldiers as they passed on their way up the line, and she did what Owen said: the true poet should be truthful. She wrote truly about the soldiers coming in, taking their mugs of tea and their sandwiches, and then getting into the train and going up the line to death. She wrote very vividly about that.
Women started writing about war, but it is very difficult to write about something you don’t first experience. This has become, regrettably, common. I was for many years a publisher, and whenever a war started I knew that within about a fortnight I would start getting hundreds of poems about battle, written by people who hadn’t moved outside their comfortable flats or houses, who had simply read the newspapers or watched the television and thought this equipped them to write about battles.
I think in all of our recent wars we’ve seen a great deal too much of this. Sometimes when you speak to poets about this they say, “Yes, but we can’t go and fight because we don’t believe in fighting,” as if that were the only alternative, Auden went to Spain saying he was going to be a stretcher-bearer. He didn’t actually carry a stretcher because he was so horrified by what he saw in Spain that he came home almost at once, rather more quietly than he had set off.
I particularly admire the poems of a poet called John Balaban, who had no intention of fighting in Vietnam. He was strongly opposed to the war, but he read about the plight of the civilians, particularly the orphaned children, and he went and worked in an orphanage in Vietnam. That seems to me an admirable thing to do. That gave him a measure of direct first-hand experience, and he writes first-hand poems about Vietnam that seem to me incomparably better than many of the poems that would be written by stateside poets who never left America.
Now there are a lot of fine and honorable poets who wrote poems about what the war was doing to America. That’s a very valid and admirable subject, but a number of others sort of slipped into imaging themselves in Vietnam and writing about it much less powerfully than Owen writes “Dulce et Decorum Est” or Randall writes about the death of the ball turret gunner.
Owen and Jarrell had seen and knew what they were writing about, whereas if all you’ve seen is the television and newspapers you don’t really know what you’re writing about. You don’t have the experience of the eye under the duckboard, and it’s the eye under the duckboard that really brings out the force of the poetry. Of course in the Vietnam War there were a number of serving soldiers who wrote very powerful poems about their experiences, and there were novelists, and memoirists, and a great deal of writing comes out of Vietnam.
One thing that interests me particularly about the Vietnam War is the way in which a significant number of poets who served in the war have come to feel that it was, at least in some way, wrong, and have chosen to go back to Vietnam to meet their Vietnamese counterparts. A lot more American poets have gone back to Vietnam after the war to tell the truth, to talk to people, to be civilized, to be humane, than in the earlier wars.
I don’t remember that British soldiers ever went back to the Crimea or South Africa. It seems now that the poets have developed—perhaps this is fanciful—a sort of enlarged conscience, as if they are now more motivated by humanitarian instincts and are more likely to take a humanitarian stance. In some cases they’re prepared to give up their jobs, to go back to Vietnam, which economically is not a very attractive proposition. You go back to the villages that you fought over, where you killed the men, women, and children, to make some form of reparation. I find it very moving that so many poets have done this.
Owen and Sassoon’s vision of the poet as witness is really the root of the matter. I mean Homer in a sense is testifying, is bearing witness, to what happens on the battlefield between the Greeks and the Trojans. Had he not written about those battles, had he not written about Troy, we wouldn’t know about Troy.
Now of course in the New World, or the world in which we now live, there are all sorts of other ways in which successive generations will know about these wars. Cameramen, radio, television, newspaper, journalists, are all testifying now.
In the longer term poets have a special role. What a really good poet gives you is this tremendous compression. To go back to our image of the armor-piercing shell, I think the poet’s armor-piercing shell pierces more and has a more lasting effect than the journalist’s piece written rather rapidly, probably hacked about by a copy editor, and published in a newspaper.
The poet’s shell has more impact than the cool analysis of a historian writing in his college room 40 years after the event he’s describing. What the poets can give you is the sense of being there, and this is why I feel sometimes quite strongly that that is what poets should be doing. They should be bearing witness, witness to what is happening in a war, in a hospital, wherever.
Poets bear witness every hour of the day in all sorts of different circumstances, but I don’t think that reading a newspaper is enough to justify one to bear witness against the war in Iraq.
Lowell wrote a wonderful poem called “Fall, 1961,” in which he speaks of a father as being no shield for his child. He speaks about this as the Russian barges with their missiles are approaching Cuba, and he wonders whether the American President is going to press the button. Is World War III about to start? Lowell is telling the truth about how he feels as an American father unable to shield his child against this coming fury, if it is to come. Now that seems to me a valid and very good subject for a poet in say, America, better than if he had written about imagining himself in the waters of Vietnam or wherever. This is particularly true in Lowell’s case because he was a conscientious objector. He felt very strongly about these things.
In our lives many of our emotions are rather complicated. We say we love someone, but at the same time we’re a bit resentful of the fact that they do this or they said that. We feel both very strong affection and a measure of resentment, and a good poet will get into the poem both the affection and the resentment. Remember Wilfred Owen speaking of the episode in which he and his young lance corporal captured the pillbox. He writes to his mother, “I was protected by your prayers. One I shot with my revolver. The rest I took with a smile, but I fought like an angel.”
He’s rather pleased with how well he did, but at the same time, of course, he hates war, but he’s honest enough to record moments of exaltation, exhilaration. He is aware of the brutality and the ugliness. He utterly deplores what is happening, but he’s honest enough to recognize the charge, the buzz of exhilaration.