Book Review: Meeting The War Poets

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace / Behind the wagon that we flung him in / And watch the white eyes writhing in his face / … / If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood / come gurgling from the froth-corrupted lungs, / Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud … Wilfred Owen “ Dulce et Decorum Est”

Verse to remember

By Roger Childs

Harry Ricketts100 years on from the start of the Great War, it’s appropriate to remember a group who made a unique contribution to English literature: the war poets. Widely respected author, Victoria University Professor, Harry Ricketts, had written an acclaimed biography of the imperialist poet Rudyard Kipling. However, he was keen to do justice to the men and women who used verse to highlight the wanton loss of life and wasteful destruction of World War One.

Discreet chapters on the individuals did not appeal as a structure, however on discovering in his research that many of the poets had met or might have met, Ricketts had an imaginative framework for Strange Meetings: The Lives of the Poets of the Great War.  

War stories in verse

Poetry about war predates World War One, but was often written in the safe confines of the homeland. Sometimes it was heroic, like Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade.

In more recent times the American (Vietnam) War inspired poignant and satirical verse designed to expose the hypocrisy and stupidity of war.

Consider “A Bucket of Blood for a Dollar” by James K Baxter: ‘Tell them straight’ said Uncle Sam / That it’s a dirty war; / Mention the Freedom of the West / That we are fighting for; / But keep the money side of it / Well tacked behind the door./ ‘I’ll make it sound.’ said Holyoake, / ‘Just like a football score.’

Consider “To Whom It May Concern” by Adrian Mitchell: I was run over by the truth one day / Ever since the accident I’ve walked this way / So stick my legs in plaster / Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Wilfred OwenHowever, the unique element of the World War One poets is that they fought and sometimes died, in what was a very static conflict, until 1918. (Back home,Vera Brittain played her part as a nurse.)

The legacy lives on and there are some unexpected connections. Ricketts mentions in his Prologue how some American soldiers in the 21st century, bound for Afghanistan, studied the war poets.

One young sergeant from Portland, Oregon picked out Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ (It is Sweet and Right), “Just by what he said you can actually feel it, or you can get a mental picture of the death or the awful sights”.

Encounters of the war kind

SassoonHarry Ricketts’s highly original approach brings the war poets alive in fifteen chapters of actual and, in some cases, imagined connections. Strange Meetings is not designed to be a comprehensive or systematic coverage, however it is sensibly chronological.

It starts with Siegfried Sassoon (pictured alongside),  meeting Rupert Brooke who was the first poet to die in the war. This first chapter over a kidneys and bacon breakfast in 1914, sets the tone for those that follow, right through to the ‘final meeting’ of the elderly Sassoon lunching with David Jones fifty years later.

Along the way, Harry Ricketts superbly recreates the settings of the interactions and fleshes out the lives of the poets, through perceptive observations on their

~ upbringing and social status

~ influences, hopes and aspirations

~ relationships and sexual proclivities

~ changing attitudes

~ written communication, opinions and literary criticism

~ desire to master the art of poetry and make it meaningful and relevant.

As expected, the commentary is interspersed with copious examples of their poetry, however, the verse illustrates rather than dominates.

The full range of emotions

The fifteen “meetings” cover a range of settings, situations and emotions. For example

  • the poignancy of the correspondence between Roland Leighton and Vera Brittain
  • the unexpected war hospital meeting in Scotland between two of the most famous poets: Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen
  • the literary “meeting” of working class Jew, Issac Rosenberg, and middle class public school educated, Robert Nicholls, in the pages of Georgian Poetry 1916-1917
  • poetry readings in Mrs Colefax’s drawing room in late 1917, with nine poets taking part
  • the reflective lunch in London, 46 years after the end of the war, between Sassoon and Davis Jones who had served in the same Mametz Wood sector on the Western Front.

Not unexpectedly, the long-surviving Siegfried Sassoon features in nine of the sessions and obviously there were limits on how many poets the author could cover. However, it is surprising that no space was available for G A Studdert Kennedy. The padre poet (known affectionately as Woodbine Willie) wrote some the most evocative and stinging verse to come out of the Western Front.

Highly recommended

Strange Meetings 2This fascinating book gives a realistic and very human account of the lives and works of these very brave poets. Tom Paulin, “Financial Times”

Constantly engaging, amiable account of one of the golden periods of English poetry. “Literary Review”

The critics have given Strange Meetings the credit it deserves. The 278 page volume is very thoroughly researched and imaginatively constructed. It is also highly readable, informative and entertaining.

A short Prologue sets the tone for the fifteen chapters on ‘meetings’ and an Epilogue detailing the 2002-2003 Imperial War Museum exhibition Anthem For Doomed Youth: Twelve Soldier Poets Of The First World War brings the study to an appropriate close.

There is also an excellent index and the Notes on Sources section at the end, gives the reader extensive detail of the primary material the author has tapped into and explanations of some of the possibly contentious conclusions he came to.

Strange Meetings: The Lives of the Poets of the Great War  by Harry Ricketts, is published by Pimlico and is available at all good book shops for $33.99.