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 of England and the unendurable realities of the Front. Then, with an increased sense of betrayal by the civilians at home, the soldier-poets came to feel that the Army in France was the only genuine embodiment of the England they had cherished. This sentiment was expressed by Wilfred Owen in one of his last poems, written in September 1918, only a few weeks before his death:
This is the thing they know and never speak,
That England one by one had fled to France,
Not many elsewhere now, save under France.
The English war poets are given a very adequate discussion in Mr. Johnston’s book: he deals in detail with five victims—Brooke, Julian Grenfell, Charles Sorley, Owen, and Isaac Rosenberg—and live survivors: Robert Nichols, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Herbert Read, and David Jones. It is a pioneering work, since no one has tackled the subject at this length before, and Mr. Johnston deserves every credit for being first in the field. It is a pity, though, that his book has a number of deficiencies; for one thing, considering its length, it is needlessly selective, and leaves out poets who should at least have been mentioned, such as Richard Aldington and Ivor Gurney. Mr. Johnston tends to write repetitively, and his book is distorted rather than illuminated by the over-rigid application of a thesis, which asserts that the immediate semi-lyrical response of the trench poets was inadequate to a subject that demanded epical treatment. Mr. Johnston sees the nearest equivalent to such a treatment in certain post-war works: Herbert Read’s The End of a War and, most particularly, David Jones’s masterly In Parenthesis, about which he writes very well.
Between them, English Poetry of the First World War and Mr. Ross’s The Georgian Revolt—which is subtitled, “Rise and Fall of a Poetic Ideal, 1910-1922”—provide a very handsome account of the English poetry of the second decade of the twentieth century. Mr. Johnston tends to be weak on literary history and conducts his analyses in a rather formalistic critical vacuum; Mr. Ross, on the other hand, writes preeminently as a literary historian. He has had access to Sir Edward Marsh’s papers and is able to describe in full detail the story of the successive volumes of Georgian Poetry, from their hopeful beginnings in 1912, through the difficult war years, and on to their decline in the early Twenties; he shows how, in the early days, “Georgian” suggested an energetic, life-giving, innovating response to literature, whereas ten years later, such had been the rapid shifts of history, the word had come to mean everything that was timid, dull, and conventional. The Georgian Revolt is an extremely useful piece of scholarship, though Mr. Ross succumbs at times to the scholar’s weakness of being so excited by the various minutiae he has turned up that he tends to forget their ultimate relevance or importance. In some ways Mr. Ross has been anticipated by C. K. Stead’s admirable volume on early twentieth-century poetry, The New Poetic, which came out in 1964, too late for him to consult. Mr. Stead’s book is less scholarly but more suggestive, full of helpful intuitions and a firm grasp on the dominant interrelating themes and issues in the poetry of the time. By contrast, Mr. Ross loses sight of the forest for some of the time in his energetic pursuit of a variety of saplings from the Georgian grove. Both he and Mr. Stead, however, come to similar conclusions: it is insufficient to dismiss the Georgians simply as something against which Eliot and Pound were reacting. In fact, both the Georgians, who advocated the pursuit of straightforward rural topics in direct, even earthy language, and the followers of Hulme and Pound, with their more exotic and cosmopolitan interests, felt themselves to be equally in revolt against the complacent flaccidity of much Edwardian versifying. Mr. Ross describes the Georgians as being in the poetic Center while the Imagists were on the Left (within the next ten years the Georgians, like other practitioners of bourgeois radicalism, were to be pushed steadily to the Right).
Mr. Ross points out that there were three distinct phases of the Georgian movement. First came the original poets of the 1912 anthology, Brooke, Lascelles Abercrombie, Gordon Bottomley, and Wilfred Gibson, who regarded themselves, and were regarded, as being moderately radical if not avant garde in their poetic practice (one or two of Rupert Brooke’s early poems had given great offense because of their unwonted frankness of language and imagery), particularly in their use of—relatively—direct speech. Next, during the war, a number of soldier poets were admitted to the anthology: Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Nichols, and, in a fragmentary and unrepresentative way, Isaac Rosenberg. The final phase came with what Mr. Ross calls the “Neo-Georgians,” such as J. C. Squire, Edward Shanks, and John Freeman, who wrote watery escapist verse, that made an almost obsessive use of moon-images; they clearly represented a loss of nerve born of the war, and they had a lot to do with giving the whole Georgian movement the bad name which it has never lost.
There are some inconsistencies in Mr. Ross’s book, particularly in the way he expands or contracts the word “Georgian” to suit his purposes. In the first part of his book he uses it rather in the manner of Frank Swinnerton in The Georgian Scene, simply to denote a given period; this enables him to say a good deal about the pre-war Pound, Hulme, and Wyndham Lewis and Blast, though they have little to do with what is to follow, when he restricts himself to discussing Marsh’s anthologies. He might profitably have allowed himself an intermediate use of the word, rather as Mr. Stead does, denoting certain poetic attitudes—of which the concern with rural England would be one—that would apply to other poets in addition to Marsh’s contributors: such victims of the war as Charles Sorley, Edward Thomas, and Wilfred Owen (who said that he would be proud to be classed with the Georgians), for instance. Mr. Ross, like other readers, is too inclined to assume that the immediate post-war period was one of absolutely untroubled tranquility with no thought of war; some people felt like that, certainly, but, as George Dangerfield has shown, there was also a considerable interest in violence and a preoccupation with the threat of war; one can point to novels like Wells’s The War in the Air and The World Set Free, and Saki’s When William Came, for direct literary evidence. On the other hand, Mr. Ross is very good indeed on the immediate post-war period: his long chapter called “The Literary Scene: 1918-1922” reduces a rich and tangled period to some kind of order.
I would like, finally, to take issue with him on a small but significant detail. Although he rightly opposes the critical tendency to dismiss the Georgians as a single unified phenomenon, he does not extend a similar discrimination to the poets of the 1890s, whom he generally disposes of with a tired gesture about fin de siècle aestheticism. I would suggest that the poets of that period, however trifling their themes, were at least as technically accomplished as most of the contributors to Georgian Poetry, and sometimes more so. One of them, John Davidson, was a forerunner in the treatment of unglamorous subjects in “everyday” language; while another, Arthur Symons, was writing Imagist poems in the early Nineties. The protomodernist Hulme recalled Symons in his own Imagist poems, and another propagandist for the modern movement, Ford Madox Ford, spoke of Symons with respect. The fundamental point is that the fin de siècle poets knew about and to some extent understood the achievement of the French symbolists, whereas the little-Englander Georgians were not interested in such things. And what is of central importance in modern literature still owes an enormous amount to the subsequent discovery of the symbolists by Eliot, Pound, and the other “men of 1914.” This view would, of course, be contested by those British critics—notably Graham Hough and Robert Conquest—who regard Pound and Eliot as, at best, grossly over-rated, and, at worst, charlatans. In their counter-revolutionary zeal they might have a certain interest in reinstating the truly English Georgians of the poetic center, as opposed to the obscurantist Franco-Americans, who imported an undesirable exotic deviation into English poetry. One of the virtues of Mr. Ross’s book is that it illuminates the Georgians so thoroughly as to make such a rewriting of literary history a good deal harder to achieve. As he says, they deserve sympathetic consideration; but he has hardly revealed a race of neglected giants.