The Georgian Poets and The War PoetsBy Stephen Colbourn
Modern poetry grew out of the First World War. English verse altered under the impact of mass murder in the trenches 1914-1918 and ceased to be cosy. The war spread to Russia and Italy and Turkey and into the Middle East, but the Western Front in France was the focus of attention at home. The opening bombardment on the Somme was heard in London.
Poetry came closer to news. Poets became war correspondents of feeling and suffering rather than celebrants of glory, honour, patria and remembrance. They ceased to be crudely national.
This is not to claim that all poetry had hitherto been glossy magazine verse or that wars had never been reported graphically. The change and difference lay in mud and blood becoming fit subjects for poetry (a view rejected by W. B. Yeats).
The poetry which was popular before the outbreak of war has become known as 'Georgian Poetry', and the main poets are known as 'Georgian Poets'. These were poets named after the reign of King George V who was crowned in 1910. The first volume of Georgian Poetry appeared in 1912, proposed by Rupert Brooke. Four more volumes were published - the last in 1922 - edited by Sir Edward Marsh.
Pre-war Georgian poetry is typified as dreamy and romantic and escapist in comparison with the harshness of war described by the realists. The most enduring Georgian is James Elroy Flecker who introduced orientalism into his verse and died young; though the most famous is, still, probably, Rupert Brooke. The forgotten Georgians are those who continued in the vein of late-Romantic picturesque descriptions of countryside.
James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915) was almost a contemporary of Rupert Brooke. Both died in 1915 - Brooke on a troopship bound for the Dardanelles and Flecker in a Swiss sanatorium. Both of them fantasised about death, Flecker more so because he was diagnosed with consumption in 1910.
Flecker's father was a clergyman and headmaster of Dean Close School, where Flecker was a day boy. Flecker attended Trinity College Oxford and also Caius College Cambridge where he studied Arabic, Persian and Turkish before joining the diplomatic service. He served as Vice-Consul in Constantinople (Istanbul), Smyrna (Izmir), and Beirut from 1910 to 1913; however, his health was poor and he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. At the outbreak of the First World War he was not quite 30 years old and unfit for military service. He died five months later in a sanatorium. His grave in Cheltenham, England, bears the epitaph 'O Lord, restore his realm to the dreamer.'
Flecker's verse is high on sensibility and often low on sense. 'The Dying Patriot' bears a resemblance to Rupert Brooke's 'The Soldier' in that it urges the living to carry on where the dead left off, but it lacks the curious Englishness on which Brooke is insistent.
What are these dead robed in red but the noble ancestors who have suffered a sea change? The verse is trance-like and lulling - a mixture of amniotic fluid and the tranquillity of amnesia. Those (patriots) who have gone before and the country itself require the young (children of the morning) to go to the ends of the earth in Imperial service. Meanwhile, the dying patriot himself is about to become part of a constellation in mark of heroism, to glow warmly for evermore in the cold night sky. The soul is headed westwards on the path of the dead. 'Hebrides' sounds a little odd, as though Hesperides didn't quite fit, and geographical quibbles over cardinal points have no place in poetry - but it's not odd when the word 'Britons' is considered. This is good native stuff overlaid on Greek myth. It's the poetry of 1914 and 'over by Christmas' and it cheered the Oxbridge volunteers of August for whom a war was but a distant prospect and excitement and a firefly blaze of glory.
The following quotation is taken from Flecker's 'Golden Journey to Samarkand' and reappeared posthumously in his verse play Hassan (1922) for which Frederick Delius composed a score; and Delius's music could be as lush and seductive as the verse
This golden journey, as Ezra Pound remarked, took place merely on paper, yet Flecker still enjoys a popularity that most other Georgians have lacked or lost though his name is not as well known in the popular literary tradition as Rupert Brooke.
Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) was the son of a schoolmaster at Rugby. Brooke was considered extraordinarily handsome as well as clever and he became darling of The Bloomsbury Group, the literary circle that formed around Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, and Virginia Woolf. After studying at Cambridge University he settled in the nearby village of Granchester and his former home, the Old Vicarage, was later purchased by the popular novelist Lord Jeffrey Archer.
Brooke suffered a nervous breakdown in 1913 and travelled first to the United States and then on to Tahiti in order to recuperate. He volunteered for the Royal Navy in 1914 and took part in the expedition to Antwerp that year, which ended in failure. Early in 1915 he sailed for the Dardanelles, where the British intended a landing to advance on Constantinople, but died during the passage from a mosquito bite on the lip. He was buried in an olive grove on Skyros.
One of the most anthologised poems in the language is Rupert Brooke's 'The Soldier': Romantic, dreamy, patriotic: even the air has nationality. It's a poem about falling asleep and waking up dead and not feeling a thing except happy. Falling, yes, that word is deliberate - falling and rising. It celebrates memorial resurrection and the suspension of time.
Brooke was a Greek scholar at Cambridge and the central thought turns on the idea of cosmic memory (mnemosyne) in which he will be 'a pulse in the eternal mind' reverberating still to an English tempo.
This poem may be classed among the literature of martyrology, though it's not a religious poem. It plays on the poetic turn of mind that dreams of being taken up in rapture for the sake of the cause or the faith - this earth, this realm, this England invested with divinity, half in love with easeful death.
If this is the most patriotic verse after the speech before Agincourt in Henry V, notice the fundamental difference: Shakespeare tells us 'Old men forget, yet all shall be forgot,' whereas Brooke is claiming the opposite - that all shall be remembered, effortlessly. And, it is also the tranquillisation of bad memory: the 'all evil shed away' is the things you don't want to remember and which others are to be spared.
Brooke never saw war. When he died at the age of 28 Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote an obituary in The Times:
This is a celebration of a Politically Correct poet at that time.
In the famous lines of Laurence Binyon (1869-1943), also written in 1914, the duty of active remembrance is extolled and exhorted:
Many people have found consolation in that verse and it has been much quoted. This is a public and ceremonial function of poetry, as epitaphs and obsequies and rituals for the dead who are better off than the living.
Binyon came from a privileged family and showed early literary promise. He won the Newdigate Prize at Oxford in 1890. For much of his life he was Keeper of the Oriental Gallery at the British Museum. His poem For The Fallen was set to music by Sir Edward Elgar. He also wrote a verse translation of Dante's Divine Comedy.
A further example of funerary verse, once described as the most famous poem of the war, was penned by a medical officer, Dr John McCrae, in 1915
This gained instant memorability and endures in the wearing of poppies for Remembrance every November, though the association of poppies with sleep and death may not be apparent to the wearers any longer. This is poetry as mantra or chant or touchstone. It is, as it were, the official face of war poetry that began with Rupert Brooke in 1914.
The War Poets did not come to treat war in the grand and glorious manner of Brooke, who was ignorant of the matter beyond the Iliad, and their verses gained more attention during the course of the war - in several cases after their deaths. During the conflict, much of their writing would have been regarded as defeatist and could not pass the censorship restrictions imposed early in the war. Yet, by 1916 the public mood had changed and the following appeared:
Charles Hamilton Sorley (1895-1915) was killed at the Battle of Loos in October 1915. He was 20 years old. The sonnet was found among his belongings. Where is the glorious remembrance? Where is the long home of the noble dead? This is the ice land of night and shade, not the warm glowy afterlife of Brooke's reciprocal memories. As silent as the grave. Lost, defaced, but somehow conscious and groping dumbly, eyelessly, deafly, but not insensibly. A deeply ugly poem which still has the capacity to shock.
Sorley wrote only 37 poems in his short life. These were preserved by Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden.
After two years of war, Brooke's notions had melted. Casualty lists appeared in the papers every day and the worst came in July 1916. The First Battle of the Somme claimed over a million dead and wounded on all sides. On Day 1 the British suffered almost 60,000 casualties of which 20,000 were reported dead or missing. Sorley's poem no longer seemed seditious: it sounded all too accurate.
W. B. Yeats insisted, however, that it was not poetry. It was not celebratory. It was certainly not uplifting. He refused to include any of the War Poets in The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935 (1936) but gave his readers plenty of Celtic Twilight from Lady Gregory. Yeats claimed that the lines such as these from Siegfried Sassoon were more like the report of an accident than poetry:
Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) was an aristocrat who won the Military Cross in the First World War and became a pacifist. He composed a protest statement in 1917 which was published in The Times newspaper and read aloud in Parliament. After this he was diagnosed as suffering from shell shock and hospitalised. A fellow patient was Wilfred Owen whose poems Sassoon collected and published in 1920. Later, he turned to religion and was influenced by the devotional verse of the seventeenth century metaphysical poets - especially Henry Vaughan (1622-1695) and George Herbert (1593-1633).
Sassoon began the war as a recognised Georgian and was almost as enthusiastic as Brooke; yet, his views changed by 1916 and we can only wonder - if Brooke had lived, would his ideas have changed too?
At the start of the war, the British army relied on volunteer recruits and there was no shortage of men from all over the Empire willing to sign up. Conscription was introduced in 1916 when the huge losses on the Western Front could no longer be replaced by volunteers. The war was felt and its results were seen on the Home Front. The dead may not have returned but the wounded did, maimed and blinded.
Wilfred Owen (1893-1918). Gas attack had added a new dimension of terror: the first such attack occurred at Ypres in April 1915 and in one of the most famous anti-war poems Wilfred Owen describes the 'ecstasy of fumbling' for a gas mask and of one drowning and lost, which, if you had seen it, you would not then repeat the old lie from Horace's Odes that it's sweet and fitting to die for your country - dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
That was it. That was modernity. The givens and certainties of the pre-war world had fallen to doubt and would go along with Tsars and Kaisers into the dustbin of history. All of them? Are there any constant truths or only temporary fictions of exigency and contingency?
This is Owen's point which he made in the preface to his slim volume of poems prepared six months before he was killed. Poetry ought not to be about beguilement.
The pity is echoed in Owen's poem Strange Meeting where two dead men meet in a tunnel which is an image of the modern hell. 'I mean the truth untold. / The pity of war: the pity war distilled.'
Now regarded as the most poignant and significant of the War Poets, he came from Shropshire, went to school in Birkenhead than studied agriculture in London and Reading. Before the war he lived in France while recovering from an illness and was unfit to enlist in 1914 - but was accepted by the army in 1915. He was wounded and received the Military Cross. Siegfried Sassoon encouraged his writing while they were together in an Edinburgh hospital and brought out the first edition of Owen's poetry. Only five of his poems were published in his lifetime but they gained attention. Well-wishers attempted to obtain a safe posting for him but he returned to France late in the war and was killed a week before the Armistice in November 1918. His poems were chosen by Benjamin Britten for The War Requiem and his small collection of works was re-edited by the Poet Laureate Cecil Day Lewis.
Notes on other poets of the period
The Major Georgians
Lascelles Abercrombie (1881-1938)
Abercrombie contributed to New Numbers, in which Brooke's poem 'The Soldier' appeared, as well as to the volumes of Georgian Poetry. He was Professor of English Literature at Leeds and London in the 1920s and finally Reader in English Literature at Oxford.
Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953)
Belloc was born in France and took British citizenship in 1902. He attended Oxford University as a mature student, having been obliged to perform French military service, and graduated with a First in History. Elected MP for Salford 1906-10, he also worked as Literary Editor of the Morning Post. His style was admired for its easy fluency and light humour, though his writing was permeated by a deep Catholic belief and he engaged in several literary arguments - in particular he denounced H. G. Wells' work of popular education The Outline of History which was revised in 1931.
Edmund Blunden (1896-1974)
Blunden volunteered for military service in the First World War and completed his studies at Oxford University in 1919. He championed two forgotten poets - the first, John Clare, had been confined to an asylum in the 19C and had left manuscript poetry that Blunden recovered and printed. Similarly, Ivor Gurney was virtually unknown until Blunden printed a slim volume of verse in 1954. He also re-edited the works of Wilfred Owen which Siegfried Sassoon had first published in 1920. Between the two World Wars he taught in Japan and Hong Kong where he returned in 1953 as Professor of English Literature. At the age of 70 he was appointed Professor of Poetry at Oxford.
William Henry Davies (1873-1940)
The most memorable incident recounted in his Autobiography is how Davies attempted to jump onboard a train heading for the Klondike gold rush in 1897, slipped and lost his left leg below the knee. He lived as a tramp for many years and was taken up by G. B. Shaw who encouraged his poetry. Augustus John found him interesting enough to draw a raffish portrait in 1918. In 1923 he married a girl more than thirty years his junior and on the failure of their marriage became a recluse.
Ralph Hodgson (1871-1962)
Hodgson worked as a journalist and was editor of Fry's Journal. Between the wars he taught English in Japan, like Edmund Blunden, but chose not to return to England. Instead he became a farmer in Ohio and a US citizen. His view of nature was mystical and warned against modern man's estrangement from his habitat.
John Drinkwater (1882-1937)
After involvement with W. B. Yeats and the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Drinkwater established a repertory company in Birmingham, originally called The Pilgrim Players. A prolific writer and popular dramatist, his greatest success in Britain and the US was the play Abraham Lincoln put on at the end of World War I. Yet, despite his output, popularity at the time, and voluminous autobiography, his books and verses are almost completely forgotten.
Wilfred Wilson Gibson (1878-1962)
One of the original founders of New Numbers along with Rupert Brooke, Gibson is remembered as a realistic poet of ordinary English country life. He wrote many short plays in verse.
Robert Graves (1895-1985)
Graves is remembered as a major writer and memoirist of the Great War, but not principally as a war poet and least of all as a Georgian. He was severely wounded in the First World War and mentally disturbed, yet lived to the age of 90. Goodbye To All That was a book that enabled him to write out his haunting memories and obsessions; and it also made his name and sold well. Unusually for that time, he went to live on the island of Mallorca - long before the invasion of package tourists - and liked to be photographed wearing a sort of picador's hat, which invited ridicule. He easily passed for a Sixties person in the 1960s, although he was seventy years old, and his book The White Goddess enjoyed a New Age following for its description of the poetic muse in mythic terms: its subtitle is A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. He was Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1961-1966. Late popular fame came to him with a BBC TV adaptation of the Claudius books in the 1970s. His last years were spent in decrepit senility.
Walter de la Mare (1873-1956)
Walter de la Mare, despite his aristocratic name and unlike many of the Georgians and 30s poets, did not come from the privileged classes. He worked for nearly twenty years as a clerk in the London office of an oil company and it was not until he was almost forty that he attempted to live by his pen. He drew and kept a growing readership who found his verse unaffected by fashion. King George V came to be among his admirers and de la Mare was granted a Civil List pension, made a Companion of Honour and ultimately received the Order of Merit. His poem The Listeners remains a great favourite of school anthologies and has an arresting close almost like a Zen koan.
Harold Monro (1879-1932)
Monro is chiefly remembered as founder and editor of The Poetry Review. He also set up a Poetry Bookshop in 1913 with the object of printing and selling poetry from the back room.
Sir J. C. Squire (1884-1958)
John Collings Squire was acting editor of The New Statesman in 1917, editor of The London Mercury 1919-1934 and Literary Editor of The Observer. In these capacities he held considerable influence and made clear his dislike of the Bloomsbury Group. He received a knighthood in 1933.
Edward Thomas (1878-1917)
Philip Edward Thomas was a forgotten writer. He published a few verses under the name Edward Eastway and continued to use his middle name, Edward, instead of his given name Philip. His early prose works included studies of Algernon Charles Swinburne, George Borrow and Walter Pater. The American poet Robert Frost encouraged Thomas to write verse when they met in 1913. Thomas had been employed as a hack journalist for fifteen years and enlisted in the army to escape the drudgery of office work. He was killed at Arras.
Richard Aldington (1892-1962)
Edward Godfree Aldington married the American Imagist poet Hilda Doolittle and was associated with T. E. Hulme, Ford Madox Ford, W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound before the First World War. 'Death of a Hero' was originally expurgated because of its horrifying description of trench warfare. He wrote a number of literary studies and biographies and is remembered for his criticism of D. H. Lawrence and his attack on T. E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia: a biographical inquiry (1955) as a charlatan. He became an admirer of the Soviet Union.
Ivor Gurney (1890-1937)
Gurney was gassed and wounded on the Western Front. Admitted to a mental institution in 1922, he spent the remainder of his life in care.
David Jones (1895-1974)
Poet and artist. He was an associate of Arthur Eric Gill and worked with him on sculpture, engraving, water colours and calligraphy, illustrating his own writings - heavily influenced by Catholicism to which he converted in 1922.
Robert Nichols (1893-1944)
A contributor to Georgian Poetry, he turned to writing plays which were unsuccessful.
(Sir) Herbert Read (1893-1968)
Herbert Read was born on a farm and managed to attend the University of Leeds as a mature student by dint of self-study after serving as an infantry officer for four years. He became a significant figure in the London art world and was an assistant keeper at the Victoria & Albert Museum and editor of the Burlington Magazine. He was knighted in 1953.
Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918)
Rosenberg, who came from the east end of London, showed considerable talent as an artist and received awards at the Slade School of Art. He was killed in France in April 1918.
© Stephen Colbourn, September 2006
Stephen Colbourn is a contributor to The Essentials of Literature in English Post-1914. Hodder Arnold. 2005