War brings with it separation: of lovers, families, friend and foe, the quick and the dead. Meetings at such a time have a transient, already elegiac quality. Harry Ricketts's new book tells the story of the First World War poets through a series of brief encounters that only infrequently flourish into a fruitful relationship. Not all of these happened in person, and five occurred well after the war had ended.
Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon were the only two who met anywhere near the front line, near Béthune, in the north of France. These poets seem to have spent as much time looking hopefully towards London literary circles and the TLS as they did across no-man's-land. Their struggle was not just with the Germans but within themselves, as they attempted to adapt the subdued poetics of pre-war verse to life on the Western Front. That meant grappling with Rupert Brooke's overbearing legacy.
Brooke died in April 1915, not in battle, but of septicaemia while on the way to Turkey. His five war sonnets, with their ethos of patriotic service and the victory of pride over regret, had been seized upon by a public and political class in need of justifying the despatch of its youth to death. "The Soldier" ("If I should die, think only this of me . . .") was read out by W R Inge, dean of St Paul's, at the cathedral on Easter Sunday, just before the poet's death. And yet something rang false about them. Edward Thomas, writing to Robert Frost, thought the poems "not very personal but a nervous attempt to connect himself with the very widespread idea that self-sacrifice is the highest self-indulgence". Roland Leighton, who corresponded in Brookisms with his fiancée, Vera Brittain, turned against the poet when living "among this chaos of twisted iron and splintered timber and shapeless earth". Ivor Gurney wrote sonnets in 1917 "as a sort of counterblast" against Brooke.
Finding poetic forms that could grasp the horrors of the conflict was a task that many of the soldier-poets ultimately failed. This was partly because they were, temperamentally, English pastoralists who clung to familiar blank verse and ballad meter in an attempt to salvage a remnant of their bucolic idylls. Edmund Blunden's description of the village of Brielen as "the usual free-verse fandango of brick moulds and water-holes" is telling because, although he dismisses vers libre as an elaborate mess, he unwittingly admits that such destruction may be best captured in less formal verse.
However, these poets also wrote as they did because they were still playing antebellum literary politics. Writers in the trenches sought affirmation from men such as Edward Marsh, the chastely doting impresario of Georgian poetry, and Robbie Ross, the cherisher of Oscar Wilde's legacy. Brooke, Sassoon, Graves, Thomas and later Wilfred Owen gravitated towards these arbiters. Ricketts circles within this orrery of poets and patrons. Unfortunately, that distracts his attention from the two finest poets of the Great War: Isaac Rosenberg and David Jones.
Rosenberg was tangentially connected to the Georgians (Marsh had bought some of his paintings), but Jones stood far beyond their sphere. Indeed, he did not start writing poetry until a decade after the war. Rosenberg was Jewish, working class and short. Jones was Welsh and lower middle class. Both were removed from the public-school homoeroticism that characterised the relationships of Marsh's protégés; and both, perhaps significantly, were rank and file, and so spent more time in the trenches. They created, in very different ways, a jagged poetry that comprehended, in Rosenberg's words, the "jagged fire" of battle.
Ricketts's approach more successfully shows that the poetry of the war did not simply emerge from the carnage-harrowed minds of individual poets, but through mutual encouragement and rivalry. And he is perceptive about the falling-off once battle had ended. When Graves published Good-Bye to All That in 1929, he and Blunden and Sassoon squabbled about exactly who did what when to whom. Robert Nichols, who inexplicably achieved enormous celebrity in 1917, spiralled into a mediocrity of limp satire and socialist agitprop. And Sassoon ossified into a living cenotaph. Ironically, the war made the greatest impression on the poetry of Yeats, Eliot and Pound, none of whom fought in it.
Strange Meetings: the Poets of the Great War
Chatto & Windus, 288pp, £20
Jonathan Beckman is assistant editor of the Literary Review