BBC documentary on Ivor Gurney

Originally posted on War Poetry – the blog of Tim Kendall, Professor of English.

My documentary on Ivor Gurney, directed by Clive Flowers, will be broadcast this Sunday, 30 March, at 9pm on BBC4.

Several years ago, a number of scholars specialising in the First World War were invited to a jointly-organised AHRC/BBC event in London. We discussed our work, and gave our views on how the BBC might mark the forthcoming centenary. There I met an executive producer, Mike Poole, who, as luck would have it, had always wanted to commission a programme about Gurney. So he approached Clive, making him the gift of a rather startled academic with no previous TV experience as presenter.

The filming process, although exhausting, was an absolute joy. Locations included the Somme (where Gurney was shot), Passchendaele (gassed), the Royal College of Music, and some of the hills around Gloucester which inspired Gurney’s greatest poetry. Thanks to Ryan‘s stunning camerawork, it is easy to appreciate why Gurney loved these landscapes. We were also lucky to interview such eloquent experts, my biggest regret being that, for an hour-long documentary, so much superb material ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Lost in the no-place of the asylum for the last 15 years of his life, Gurney complained constantly that he had not received the ‘honour’ that was due to him. Wishing for death, he felt forgotten, betrayed, exiled from his native Gloucestershire and condemned to lingering torture. I thought about that a great deal as I was helping to make this documentary. The programme is intended as some small and belated recompense, a homage to an extraordinary genius who remains underappreciated even today.

Rupert Brooke, Julian Grenfell, and Homer

Originally posted on ‘War Poetry‘ – the blog of Tim Kendall, Professor of English at the University of Exeter.

I have blogged separately about Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell. They were the earliest fatalities of all the War’s significant poets, and despite the immense popularity of their work for many decades, in recent times their reputations have suffered because they discomfort us with truths about war which we would rather not acknowledge. Brooke, in particular, has become a byword for naivety, his example counterblasted by Owen’s and Sassoon’s bitter voices of experience. If Brooke had lived longer, the argument goes, he would have learnt better. The recent anthologist who condemns Brooke’s ‘life-diminishing ideas’ and ‘sick philosophy’ articulates opinions which are regularly heard in schoolrooms and beyond.

Far from being a foolish innocent, Brooke in 1914 knew more about war than almost any of his contemporaries. Granted a commission in the Royal Naval Division—a new amphibious unit of Winston Churchill’s devising—he had been helpless at the siege and fall of Antwerp as what he later called ‘one of the greatest crimes in history’ played out: ‘Hundreds of thousands of refugees, their goods on barrows and hand-carts and perambulators and wagons… the old men mostly weeping, the women with hard drawn faces… That’s what Belgium is now: the country where three civilians have been killed to every one soldier.’ Brooke understood the  nature of modern conflict, foreseeing the ‘incessant mechanical slaughter’. Nevertheless, appalling as it was, the sacrifice must be made, not only to protect England from a similar fate, but for compelling humanitarian reasons: ‘I’ve seen the half million refugees in the night’.
Back in England, Brooke wrote the five sonnets of ‘1914’ as a ‘rallying cry’ to a nation which didn’t yet realise what ‘sacrifices — active or passive’ would be required of its citizens. The Dean of St Paul’s read the last of these (‘The Soldier’) from the pulpit on Easter Sunday, 4 April 1915. Less than three weeks later, on St. George’s Day, Brooke was dead, having succumbed to septicaemia following a mosquito bite. Winston Churchill, in his obituary for Brooke published on 26 April, celebrated a man who ‘was all that one could wish England’s noblest sons to be in days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable’. The apotheosis was complete: tens of thousands of copies of Brooke’s poetry were sold every year until well into the 1960s, and every subsequent soldier-poet was obliged to wrestle with Brooke’s legacy.
The first to do so was Julian Grenfell. Grenfell was Eton and Oxford, Brooke Rugby and Cambridge; Grenfell was a hearty in extremis (boxing, hunting), Brooke an aesthete. Yet the two men had friends in common, such as Patrick Shaw Stewart, and Grenfell would soon have known Brooke’s fate. On 29 April 1915, six days after Brooke’s death, Grenfell wrote his most famous poem, ‘Into Battle’. Its opening stanza makes extraordinary claims:
The naked earth is warm with spring,
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun’s kiss glorying,
And quivers in the loving breeze;
And Life is Colour and Warmth and Light,
And a striving evermore for these;
And he is dead who will not fight;
And who dies fighting has increase.
What starts like a gorgeous invocation of spring’s renewal becomes suddenly strange and disturbing. Readers carried along by rhyme and anaphora (‘And… And… And… And… And…’) will find themselves assenting to statements which are, at best, controversial: ‘And he is dead who will not fight; / And who dies fighting has increase.’ Elizabeth Vandiver, the poem’s most perceptive critic, points out that Grenfell’s debt is not to Christian but to classical tradition, especially to Homer’s Iliad with its belief that the reputational glory gained through a brave death in battle provides ‘increase’. As a demonstration, Vandiver quotes Sarpedon’s speech to Glaucus inIliad 12: ‘My dear friend, if the two of us could flee this war and be forever ageless and immortal, I would not fight on among the foremost warriors nor would I send you into the battle that brings a man glory. But as it is, since thousands of death spirits crowd upon us, which no mortal can flee nor ward off, let us go; either we will yield glory to another, or someone will yield it to us.’
Without challenging Vandiver’s belief in the poem’s Homeric perspective, it is possible to see that, in the days after Brooke’s death, Grenfell was also influenced by something closer to hand: Brooke’s ‘1914’. The line ‘And he is dead who will not fight’ — a concise expression of the paradox that we are only truly alive when we dare to risk our lives — comes close to Brooke’s opening sonnet,‘Peace’, with its dismissal of those who will not fight as ‘sick hearts that honour could not move, / And half-men’. As for Sarpedon’s speech, it is mediated through the octave of Brooke’s third sonnet, ‘The Dead’:
Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, had made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
That men call age; and those who would have been,
Their sons, they gave, their immortality.
Sarpedon tells Glaucus that they may as well sacrifice themselves, as one day they will die anyway; if they could achieve immortality by fleeing the battle, they should do so. Brooke makes the sacrifice of the War’s early victims more complete. These men outdo even Homeric heroes. In Grenfell’s terms, they ‘ha[ve] increase’, being ‘rich’. At the same time, they (unlike Sarpedon) have been prepared to sacrifice their ‘immortality’; that is, they give those never-to-be-conceived ‘sons’ when they give themselves. This is the ultimate sacrifice, all the richer for losing far more than mere life.

Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology

Originally posted on ‘War Poetry‘ – the blog of Tim Kendall, Professor of English at the University of Exeter.

Poetry of the First World War is published today by Oxford University Press. It comes to 312 pages, plus an introduction and editorial notes. Dates of composition range from September 1914 (Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’ and Kipling’s ‘For All We Have and Are’) to September 1966 (Blunden’s ‘Ancre Sunshine’). I have also included several poems by Ivor Gurney which have never previously been published.

Any anthologist of First World War poetry needs to tackle one question. Hasn’t it been done before? The answer, of course, is: yes, many times. A war poetry anthology appeared in 1914, and the first soldier-poet anthology two years later. Frederic Brereton’s An Anthology of War Poems (1930), accompanied by an introduction from Edmund Blunden, already contained many of the poets whom we would now consider canonical. The 1960s saw a new wave of anthologies, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of War. Yet by that stage their editorial biases were beginning to look exposed. Brian Gardner’s Up the Line to Death (1964), which continues to be used as a teaching text even today, fails to find room for a single woman amongst its 72 civilian- and soldier-poets.

An anthology like Gardner’s, so egregious in its prejudices, demonstrates why each generation feels the need to revisit, challenge and revise the canon. There can be no definitive version, no last word. It is also true to say that contemporary editors have a considerable advantage over Gardner and his peers. Ian Parsons wrote in his introduction to Men Who March Away (1965) that ‘To ascertain the precise date of composition of more than a hundred poems, many of which were written in the trenches and not published until long afterwards, was clearly impossible.’ No doubt this explained why the first poem in his anthology (Edward Thomas’s ‘The Trumpet’) was written after the last (Thomas Hardy’s ‘In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”‘). But it did also allow Parsons to create what has now become an all-too-familiar trajectory from idealism to bitterness, in ignorance or wilful defiance of historical chronology.

Today we have no such excuse. We know so much more than our predecessors, and are able to use authoritative editions (by, for example, Jon Stallworthy on Wilfred Owen, Vivien Noakes on Isaac Rosenberg, and Edna Longley on Edward Thomas) to pinpoint the order of composition and—as far as possible—establish accurate texts. My anthology annotates every poem with a date of composition as well as detailed textual and explanatory notes. It has proven a Herculean task, made possible only by the brilliant scholarship of previous editors. I am not so dry-as-dust to maintain that the notes are more important than the poems, but stubborn facts do provide a corrective to our natural tendency to mythologise the War according to our own preoccupations and agendas. More than that, the notes should help to make the overly familiar strange, or at least allow it to be viewed from different perspectives: the fact that Winston Churchill (no less), as a young war reporter, was using the phrase dulce et decorum est pro patria mori ironically in his newspaper account of the Soudan campaign (1898) ought to give pause to those who believe that Owen’s famous poem does something original and revolutionary.

Here are the poets I have included in the anthology:

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
A. E. Housman (1859-1936)
May Sinclair (1863-1946)
W. B. Yeats (1865-1939)
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
Laurence Binyon (1869-1943)
Charlotte Mew (1869-1928)
Robert Service (1874-1958)
Edward Thomas (1878-1917)
Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (1878-1962)
Mary Borden (1886-1968)
Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)
Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)
Julian Grenfell (1888-1915)
T. P. Cameron Wilson (1888-1918)
Patrick Shaw Stewart (1888-1917)
Ivor Gurney (1890-1937)
Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918)
Arthur Graeme West (1891-1917)
Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
Margaret Postgate Cole (1893-1980)
May Wedderburn Cannan (1893-1973)
Charles Sorley (1895-1915)
Robert Graves (1895-1985)
David Jones (1895-1974)
Edmund Blunden (1896-1974)
Edgell Rickword (1898-1982)
Music Hall and Trench Songs