Monday, 23 February 2009

Robert Nichols's War Poetry Anthology

Sebastian Field has kindly lent me his copy of Robert Nichols's Anthology of War Poetry 1914-18, first published in 1943. Nichols was a veteran of the Great War who had been invalided out of the army with shellshock.

Dedicated to 'Those who go by force into the land of Bire', the anthology spends 100 pages of introduction in a Platonic dialogue with a young soldier (Julian Tennyson) about to fight in the Second World War. The purpose is to hand down wisdom from one generation to the next. Wheedled into submission, or perhaps desperate to escape, Tennyson finally succumbs: 'I see now you were right. My generation does in some sort undertake this adventure in the enjoyment of a certain advantage over yours. We are clearer as to our aims and Germany's. And we have so much more definite notions as to what we have to expect.' Thank heavens for poetry anthologists!

Nichols is nothing if not self-indulgent. He expects that the reader in 1943, pondering the words of the Great War poets, will conclude 'that it is out of a feeling of the fullness of living that they consecrate themselves to death; the act is a sort of flowering, as if the flower should find a voice and say, "This is my blossom. It is red."' If it fails to do anything else, the metaphor at least makes clear why Nichols is such a minor poet.

His selection of poems takes up less than half the space of the introduction, and seems rather like a reluctant afterthought. Nichols's canon, such as it is, looks bizarre to modern readers: no Gurney, no Rosenberg, no David Jones, just one civilian (not Hardy or Kipling but James Elroy Flecker, obviously!). Owen, credited with having written 'by far the most beautiful' poems during the war, is represented by just four pieces, the same number as Brett Young. Sassoon wins with 13, followed by Blunden (9), Graves (8) and Brooke (5). Rickword has 2, and the only other poet represented by more than a single poem is Nichols himself (1 plus the 'Epilogue'). It is hard to think of a madder poetry anthology since E. B. Osborn's The Muse in Arms (1917) argued that the greatest of all Great War poets was... Robert Nichols.

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