Poetry - Death chorus
First World War Poems
Chosen by Andrew Motion Faber & Faber, 171pp, £12.99
Taken as a whole, the poetry of the First World War exhibits a strong and simple story: the shift from innocence to experience, from youthful, quasi-chivalric enthusiasm through hard experience to bitter disillusionment. It is the first poetry I remember reading for myself (rather than at a teacher's bidding), in a Chatto anthology entitled Men Who March Away. This, along with a companion volume - C Day Lewis's edition of Wilfred Owen's collected poems - formed my introduction to 20th-century poetry.
It is, as Andrew Motion writes in the introduction to his anthology, an extremely well-known body of work, at the heart of which stand several canonical pieces: Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" and "Anthem for Doomed Youth"; "The Soldier" by Rupert Brooke; works by Sassoon, Thomas, Blunden, and so on. What, therefore, is the point of assembling another anthology? Here the title of my old Chatto collection is revealing: these are poems by men, and in particular men who have fought on the front line. As the critic James Campbell has pointed out, anthologists have long made a tacit assumption that combat experience is what distinguishes these poets from others. This assumption withholds legitimacy from work that is not produced by men at the front and, secondly, it tends to see war poetry as a monolithic body of work.
Motion's achievement with this new anthology is in tackling the first of these difficulties by including poems written by women - Eleanor Farjeon, Helen Mackay, Rose Macaulay - and by poets of later generations who are responding to the lingering afterglow of that great conflagration: Larkin, Hughes and Heaney, as well as Vernon Scannell's marvellous "The Great War". Putting in this later work helps to prevent the original poems from becoming mere museum pieces, precious things to be venerated rather than taken down, handled and passed around.
The second problem is addressed by the new edition of Isaac Rosenberg's poetry: here was a figure who really did not fit the Romantic myth of gilded youth. The son of emigre Lithuanian Jews, Rosenberg was brought up in the East End, where his father was a licensed hawker. At 14 he was apprenticed to an engraver in Fleet Street, but his real urge was to paint. He took evening classes at Birkbeck College, and at the age of 21 went to the Slade School, where he studied alongside Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and Dora Carrington.
Rosenberg was awkward, inarticulate, self-conscious and keenly aware of the gaps in his education. He was also determined, like his hero William Blake, to make it as a painter and poet. Motion writes that, when war broke out, "even Isaac Rosenberg greeted [it] with enthusiasm". This is hardly the case.
Red fangs have torn His face,
God's blood is shed:
He mourns from His lone place
His children dead
wrote Rosenberg in "On Receiving News of the War". In 1915 he signed up as a private, and served in the King's Own Royal Lancasters. He was shot dead on April Fool's Day, 1918.
Rosenberg's experience as an enlisted man as well as his religion (his poetry shows a growing awareness of and confidence in his Jewish identity) set his work apart from that of the officer poets - Sassoon, Graves, Owen. It has a distinctively ragged quality, the images flung down on the page, one on top of another, the rhythms jerky and the diction harsh. Partly this reflects the extreme conditions under which the trench poems were written; partly it is the product of aesthetic choice. His best poems have an immediacy and power that few poets could match.
This selection by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, who has done so much excellent work on the First World War poets, allows us to trace the development of Rosenberg's style as he carefully pared away the ornaments of Edwardian poetic convention to arrive at a means of conveying what it was to be bound "to the whims of murder,/ Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,/The torn fields of France". How good it is to be reminded of this harsh, uncompromising, highly singular voice among that astonishing choir of the dead.
Adam Newey is poetry editor of the NS