I was at the Bodleian on Thursday and Friday, trying to act like a scholar, and during a quick sortie to Blackwell's I came across a copy of Brian Gardner's Up the Line to Death. Its reissue in 2007 had somehow passed me by, so I now offer the most belated of responses.
Gardner's anthology has one undeniable virtue: first published in 1964, it helped to inspire a renewed interest in the poets of the Great War. Dan Todman has written authoritatively about the ways in which the reading and teaching of Great War poetry became bound up with the anti-Vietnam protests and, more loosely, with a counter-cultural movement which stretched across the latter part of the decade. Gardner was at least partially responsible for creating that possible narrative, in which Great War poetry became cited as evidence proving the wickedness and futility of all wars.
Gardner's introduction runs through a number of myths to establish its case. The fiction that Wilfred Owen kept a collection of 'horror photographs' which he would 'pull out of his pocket and without a word thrust before verbal warriors who had not been in the fighting' is presented as fact. The possibility that soldiers experienced the War in a multitude of ways is quickly disallowed: 'the lice, cold, hunger, fear, wet, and misery were the same', Gardner assures us. And what Gardner calls the 'journey' from the 'idealism' of 1914 to bitterness and anger after the Somme is mapped sketchily but unquestioningly. Gardner selects and regiments his poems so that they will make that particular route-march without the slightest risk of ever straying from the path.
Time is cruel to anthologists because it betrays the limitations of their sensibilities. In this respect, Gardner suffers more than his contemporary, Ian Parsons, whose vastly superior selection, Men Who March Away, was published the following year. Gardner accepts the view that works by Sassoon, Owen and Blunden 'are great poetry in any company', and he acknowledges that 'For the rest, the opinion of the critics seems to have varied widely.' His own opinions are never stated, and can only be guessed at from what is a rather dull and timid selection. Poets such as Edward Shanks, here represented by three poems, have been ignored with good reason by subsequent anthologists. The dozen or so lines from In Parenthesis are better than nothing, but only just. And a comment in the 'Introductory Note' eloquently exposes Gardner's calamitous lack of judgement: 'Lesser-known poems for which I was particularly sorry not to have found room were: 'Death in France' by Carroll Carstairs, 'The Beach Road by the Wood' by Geoffrey Howard, 'After Loos' by Patrick MacGill, 'Private Claye' by D. C. McE. Osborne, and poems by Ivor Gurney.' Gardner can be excused for not having read unpublished work by Gurney, but the thought that the poet of 'Pain' and 'To His Love' has been ignored in favour of slop by Edward Shanks and Robert Nichols is almost unbearable.
Up the Line to Death now possesses only historical interest. A set text for many years in our secondary schools, it symptomised a desire to exploit the poetry of the Great War for political purposes. However noble those purposes may occasionally be, they damage and devalue those writers whose work does indeed amount to 'great poetry in [nearly] any company'.
Update: George Simmers continues the cudgelling here.