Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Harry Ricketts: Strange Meetings

Strange Meetings, by Harry Ricketts, was part of my holiday reading this summer. My expectations were low, the reviews having been lukewarm. Such praise as the book attracted had been hedged with caveats and cavils. And I hadn't yet seen the Friends of the Dymock Poets Newsletter which was awaiting my return to England: in a long article, Lynn Parker was so perplexed by this 'ingenious but infuriating book' that she wondered 'how it came to be commissioned'.

It is possible to acknowledge the justice of the criticisms while still celebrating the book's achievement. Admittedly, some of the selections and omissions seem bizarre. A study which is structured around meetings between war poets ought not to devote a chapter to imaginary conversations between Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas; the occlusion of the Dymock Poets---even to the point of claiming (wrongly) that the Frosts and Thomases had 'holidayed' together in the 'West Midlands'---is a crude strategy to hide distracting stories from view; there is virtually no analysis of poetry, and what little that survives is untrustworthy (for example, Ricketts argues that the 'enemy soldier' of Owen's 'Strange Meeting' had not only been killed by the speaker, but had 'also killed him'); perhaps at the publisher's insistence, a single woman poet (Vera Brittain) has been accommodated, although she breaks all the book's principles of focusing exclusively on soldier poets, and is barely a poet at all; the canard that Gurney was homosexual, based on nothing more than a horrible misreading of 'To His Love', is cited uncritically; photographs are included which have no bearing on the book's subject; poets who were not part of prestigious literary networks receive less attention than they deserve. And so on.

Yet in one respect, reviewers have seemed disingenuous. Several have claimed that the book merely repackages familiar stories. Either those reviewers are more knowledgeable than me, or they are bluffing. Some relationships, especially between Sassoon and Owen, seem like roads well trodden, but many others (such as Nichols and Sassoon, or Thomas and Brooke) are insufficiently known or studied. Ricketts writes refreshingly about all his subjects, but the polish of his prose should not disguise his thorough research. This may not be a book for an academic market, but it has things to teach all its readers.

The heroes of Ricketts' study are Brooke and Sassoon. They loom large, partly because they knew more poets than the others, and partly (I suspect) because Ricketts values their work so highly. (A third and less predictable hero is Robert Nichols, whose Ardours and Endurances, now entirely forgotten, was 'the poetic hit' of 1917.) Brooke appears as a force of nature: Ricketts quotes Virginia Woolf's account of the skinny-dipping poet who dives into a pool at Grantchester and surfaces with 'an instant erection'. No study of First World War poetry makes sense without Brooke, whose influence on his successors was incalculable. Loved or loathed, his five war sonnets could not be escaped: what Ricketts calls Ivor Gurney's 'complicated mixture of tribute and riposte' was repeated in the works of almost all the War's significant poets.

This fact points towards the most valuable aspect of Ricketts' work. He illustrates, entertainingly and sensitively, the extraordinary extent to which the war poets were reading each other, virtually from the start. Their personal relationships are merely props for the more important and intimate relationship between their works. So Ricketts is right, for example, to devote a chapter to the 'strange meeting' between Brooke and Gurney, even though the two men never actually met; Gurney's encounter with Brooke's poetry inspired some of his finest work. Biographies matter because they help us to appreciate the profound indebtedness even of such astonishing originality as Gurney's.


  1. Having spent the last six months studying A. E. Housman and the poets of World War I, I would like to point out that it is partly Housman’s influence - to varying degrees - that lies behind almost all these poets mention, including that of Rupert Brooke and Ivor Gurney. Rupert Brooke, for instance, had been influenced by Housman’s poetry whilst at school, suggesting at the time that ‘one should read A Shropshire Lad on an autumn morning when there is a brave nip of frost in the air and the year is sliding quietly towards death’ and later received some impromptu tuition from Housman in February 1913 whilst staying with his ‘Georgian’ poetry collaborator, Edward Marsh. Moreover, Housman’s A Shropshire Lad influenced not only the composer George Butterworth (killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916) but also Ivor Gurney’s song-cycles Ludlow and Teme and The Western Playland.
    PS Without further study I can’t vouch with certainly that “the Frosts and Thomases had 'holidayed' together in the 'West Midlands” but I have noted that, ‘Before returning to America, Robert Frost’s close friend and soon-to-be fellow poet, Edward Thomas gave my mother a 1912 edition of A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, signed in his diminutive hand ‘Lesley Frost from Edward Thomas.’” (Robert Frost: An Adventure in Poetry, 1900-1918 by Lesley Lee Francis).

  2. This book sounds like ambition went far past the execution.

  3. Rob --- the Frosts weren't holidaying in the West Midlands. They were living in Dymock. The Thomases did indeed 'holiday' there in the summer of 1914, to be close to the Frosts.

  4. "claiming (wrongly) that the Frosts and Thomases had 'holidayed' together in the 'West Midlands'"
    "the Frosts weren't holidaying in the West Midlands. They were living in Dymock. The Thomases did indeed 'holiday' there in the summer of 1914, to be close to the Frosts."
    Surely that isn't a wrong claim- an error or lie- but something worse: very bad writing.
    If you're going to use "holiday" as a verb at all, then "have a holiday" is as valid as "go on holiday". Presumably Ricketts had already said Frost was living in Dymock: he could just have said the Thomases went to have a holiday with the Frosts or at the Frosts' home.

  5. I'm almost certain that Ricketts doesn't mention Dymock anywhere in the book.

  6. "I'm almost certain that Ricketts doesn't mention Dymock anywhere in the book."
    He should have done! Then we'd be more likely to know what he was trying to say. All the same, the man who would use "holiday" as a verb would commit any crime.
    A man who missed his vocation as a literary critic:

  7. Might one ask: is this book meant to be fiction, scholarship, a dream of poets, wishful thinking, or some bastard combination (like, say, the inside story according to a Murdoch or minion)? From this side of the water, it sounds like Norman Mailer writing about a misperceived, melancholy circle around Robert Lowell. I guess our WWI poets--there were some, right?--just weren't that ardent or even willing to be acquainted. (Not even cummings. Our action was post-War Paris and Greenwich Village and Upper Michigan.)