On this day thirty years ago, Edgell Rickword succumbed to cancer. He was 83, and among the poets of the First World War he had outlived all but Robert Graves. Rickword is now probably best remembered for his political activism, which took all his energies from the 1930s onwards and caused his poetry to dwindle almost to nothing. Thankfully, he had published three volumes by then, and among them was a small batch of poems which focused on his experiences of the War.
Rickword enlisted with the Artists' Rifles in 1916, one month before his eighteenth birthday. He reached the Front in January 1918, and his service during the last year of the War won him the Military Cross. Two months after the Armistice, while still in France, he developed septicaemia and lost his left eye. He was charged three guineas for the glass replacement.
Rickword recalled that his war poems had been written 'after the end of hostilities, the end of anxiety... One was reflecting on the experience rather than writing directly out of the experience.' Four of those poems can be read here, including the earliest and most commonly anthologised, 'Winter Warfare', which he would eventually come to dismiss as a 'juvenile trifle'. Here is a recording of Rickword reading 'The Soldier Addresses his Body'. And here is a good interview with him.
Carcanet Press have performed a valuable service by keeping Rickword's writings in print. The poetry does, undoubtedly, fall away not just in quantity but in quality from the late 1920s, and part of the reason for that can be gathered from Rickword's later view that the War had been ‘the result of the same human will that condemns the people to a low and precarious standard of life whether engaged with an external foe or not.’ The specificities of experience were overridden by a passionate and generalising politics which his poetry was obliged to serve. Yet his earlier poems are like nothing else in the period, and deserve to last. Here are the final lines of Rickword's 'Trench Poets', written before 1921, in which his attempts to fend off the rats, worms and flies which assault his 'mackerel-eyed' chum end in comic failure:
There was one thing I still might do
to starve those worms; I racked my head
for wholesome things and quoted Maud.
His grin got worse and I could see
He sneered at passion’s purity.
He stank so badly, though we were great chums
I had to leave him; then rats ate his thumbs.