English Poetry of the First World War
The Georgian Revolt
A little over fifty years ago, Rupert Brooke died of blood poisoning in the Aegean, on his way to Gallipoli. Some months before, he had anticipated the event in “The Soldier,” the most celebrated of his 1914 sonnets, which before long was to become one of the most widely read and frequently quoted short poems in the language: if the Tolstoyan theory of art had any validity it would be one of the greatest.
If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be In that rich earth a richer dust conceated
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware; Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air, Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
These lines not only contributed to Brooke’s personal apotheosis as the first of the “war poets,” a hero and victim of uniquely glamorous caliber; they also provided a mystical consummation to a literary and cultural movement of which Brooke had been, briefly, one of the brighter stars. In 1912 Brooke had contributed prominently to Georgian Poetry, 1911-1912, whose editor, Edward Marsh, had remarked in his Preface, “This volume is issued in the belief that English poetry is now again putting on a new strength and beauty…we are at the beginning of another ‘Georgian period’ which may take rank in due time with the several great poetic ages of the past.”
The Georgian movement had a number of poetic aims and characteristics, which are fully described in Mr. Ross’s excellently informative book. One of the most prominent was the stress on England, both as a poetic subject and a state of mind; in the years before 1914 the word seemed to have a curious poignancy, and the small endearing features of the English rural scene were correspondingly celebrated by the young poets of whom Marsh wrote with such eager enthusiasm.
Theirs was, essentially, a little-Englander’s vision, as opposed to Kipling’s interest in a Greater Britain, an England beyond the seas; the poetic view is closely paralleled in E. M. Forster’s novel, Howards End, whose central motif, the Hertfordshire house with the wych elm growing outside, is seen as an image of the continuity of English tradition. Forster’s book is full of evocative, essay-like descriptions of the English countryside, and his decent worried liberalism was echoed by the more articulate of the poets. Indeed, after reading Christopher Hassall’s biography of Brooke I felt that he might have been the hero of an unwritten—or suppressed—novel about pre-war Cambridge by his friend Forster. Brooke’s 1914 sonnets show us the modest Georgian feeling for England being wrought to a higher pitch by the passions and expectations of war. In the later war poetry this transfigured patriotism disappears under the brutishness of trench warfare and artillery bombardments, but the Georgian mode persisted as a constant painful contrast between the remembered beauty…
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