Briefly back at my Mum and Dad’s: partly for family reasons, partly because the ultimate cure for ‘manflu’ is, of course, to demand parental pampering. No update on the military experience ratio for the moment, therefore, but instead a minor diversion inspired by one of the few family relics.
My Great Aunt, long deceased, was a librarian, and left a bookcase full of the cheap Everyman (and suchlike) editions she collected during the 1930s. She is a semi-mythical figure in the family: cantankerous spinster, fiercely independent, engaged in a fight with my grandfather from the time they were seven and quarrelled over who’d found the sixpence in the sandpit until she was laid in her coffin. I disappointed my mother when I pointed out, recently, that she couldn’t have lost a fiance in the Great War (she would have been about seven in 1914), but there are two or three independent accounts of her declaration, at her 60th birthday party, that the worst thing about getting old was the lack of opportunities for sex.
Looking through her bookshelf last night, I found a copy of Modern Poetry (ed. Guy. N. Pocock, Dent and Sons, London). First published in 1920, it was in its 11th (1932) reprint when she acquired a copy in 1936. My assumptions about who counts as modern were fairly swiftly overturned by the picture of Rupert Brooke on the frontispiece, and by the selection of poems from Newbolt, Stevenson, Kipling and Masefield (on the other hand, it does have some Whitman and Sacheverell Sitwell). Of most interest, however, is its section on ‘The Great War’.
Pocock introduces this section by writing:
‘These poems have been written either by men who have seen modern war and tried to seize something tangible amidst its awful complexity, or by those who have had to stay behind and bear the strain of suspense and anxiety. The result has been not a vast epic or drama, but a great number of telling scenes, significant thoughts, like flashes in the great dark chaos. These war-thoughts are often expressed in verse of extreme simplicity; and this is especially so when the writers have themselves looked death and horror straight in the eyes; for to them the thing seen or the thought inspired is too poignant in itself to bear any elaboration.
Whether the war-poetry is designed to live, it is not yet possible to say. All one can be sure of is this: that when time has dimmed the memory of these terrible years, the thoughts of the men who fought, and of those who worked and waited at home, will be found embodied in these poems by those who care to read. No statues, nor pictures, nor novels will put those thoughts so intimately and vividly before us.’ (85-6)
The poems are:
Thomas Hardy, ‘Men who march away’
Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, ‘Hit’, ‘The Messages’
Robert Nichols, ‘The Assault’
Herbert E. Palmer, ‘The Bushrangers’
Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Attack’
Anon. ‘The Cricketers of Flanders’
Julian Grenfell, ‘Into Battle’
Guy N Pocock, ‘Years Ahead’
John Drinkwater, ‘Clouds’
Gerald Cumberland, ‘The Winging Souls’
Robert Graves, ‘The Dead Fox Hunter’ (which to me bears a resemblance to Keith Douglas’ ‘Aristocrats’ – a connection I’d never spotted before).
I’ve never come across Pocock before, and a Google search seems only to suggest that he edited a lot of books in the 1920s and 1930s. His own poem is not impressive in aesthetic terms – but the selection he made, two years after the war, is fascinating.