Bomber County: the Lost Airmen of World War Two

Early in the Second World War, Cecil Day Lewis wrote a poem called "Where Are the War Poets?". That same year, 1941, Robert Graves gave a radio talk on the question: "Why has this war produced no war poets?" Seventy years later, when we think of war poetry, we still think
of the Great War and writing from the trenches: of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg and Rupert Brooke. "The last war has had neither its Iliad nor its War and Peace," wrote George Steiner in The Death of Tragedy. "None who have dealt with it have matched the control of remembrance achieved by Robert Graves or Sassoon in their accounts of 1914-18."

One of the many achievements of Daniel Swift's book is to set this record straight. The conventional wisdom is wrong. The Second World War, he argues, produced a considerable body of British and American poetry, by veterans and civilians alike. Robert Conquest, Dylan Thomas, Stephen Spender and Day Lewis are among the British poets. The airmen Randall Jarrell, John Ciardi and James Dickey are among the Americans. And Swift does a fascinating job of arguing for some of the great poems of the 1930s and 1940s - T S Eliot's "Four Quartets" and W H Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts" - to be seen in their historical context as responses to the wars of the time. It is no coincidence, he argues, that Auden paid such attention to Bruegel's Icarus. He and Christopher Isherwood were in Brussels in December 1938 finishing their book Journey to a War, an account of their trip, during the Sino-Japanese war, to China, where Auden witnessed the new aerial warfare and reflected on "the best way of watching an air battle if you don't want a stiff neck".

In the course of his defence of Second World War poetry, Swift introduces us to a number of little-known writers and to verse such as Mervyn Peake's powerful "Rhyme of a Flying Bomb" and Jarrell's "Second Air Force", with its haunting opening image of a woman looking on, apart, at the man's world of war. Or this last line of Jarrell's "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner": "When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose." Swift also helps us to read familiar poems anew. Betjeman's best-known line - "Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!" - looks very different in a section on the landscape of the bombed city.

This leads us to the central thrust of Swift's argument. He is not just re-evaluating a group of war poets in an academic dispute about who should be in the canon. He is keen to reclaim a whole area of verse and literature: the account of bombers and, in particular, the bombed city. He juxtaposes two very different accounts, those by airmen and those by people on the ground, who were trying to find a language for this novel form of warfare.

Swift trawls widely, ranging from the diaries of Virginia Woolf and Spender's account of his time in the National Fire Service to Cecil Beaton, Graham Sutherland and Winston Churchill describing the ruined landscape emerging before their eyes. Sutherland, an official war artist, later recalled "the absolute dead silence" of London during the Blitz, "except every now and then a thin tinkling of falling glass - a noise which reminded me of some of the music of Debussy".

The range of sources is impressive - artists and poets, but also R S R Fitter's study of the wildlife of London, focusing on plants that flourished in the new wastelands. "Notably the rose-bay willow-herb", he remarks, which likes plenty of light - "which of course it gets on the open blitzed sites". A few pages later, Swift switches focus deftly from Hector in the Iliad to Sigmund Freud and on to today's debate about the morality of bombing in the Second World War: 45,000 dead in Hamburg in July 1943, 25,000 dead in Berlin in February 1945, up to 60,000 dead in Dresden.

The author does an excellent job of laying out this debate in all its complexity, and shifts focus effortlessly from the big picture to fine detail. We learn what the airmen wore ("on your feet, silk socks, then air force socks, then wool socks, then flying boots"), how many brushes were issued to them (four) and what Virginia Woolf ate on a visit to Bloomsbury during the Blitz.

And this is the point about Swift's book. It is not conventional literary criticism - genre, canon and biography. It is certainly not literary theory. Instead, it is an exciting new kind of criticism - part literary readings, part history and part personal memoir, tracing the story of what happened to his grandfather, a pilot who disappeared over Holland in 1943.

Swift acknowledges the influences of Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory and W G Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction. But the real achievements are his own - the illuminating details and readings, the eye for the telling absence, the awareness of the importance of fantasy and myth in people's versions of history. This is an astonishing debut.

Bomber County: the Lost Airmen of World War Two
Daniel Swift
Hamish Hamilton, 304pp, £20

David Herman is a former television producer

This article first appeared in the 16 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war against science