Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Wilfrid Gibson: 'Breakfast'

‘I am one of those unlucky writers whose books have predeceased him.’ That was Wilfrid Gibson’s melancholic verdict in a letter to Robert Frost in the 1930s. It is a horrible irony that the sentence has taken on a life of its own: people who have never read Gibson’s poetry know that line, and a Guardian article by Robert McCrum earlier this year, titled 'Predeceased', used what McCrum called Gibson’s ‘candid self-knowledge’ as a starting-point for a general discussion of writers who have, as he put it, passed from celebrity to oblivion in their own lifetimes. Although hardly a celebrity at any stage, Gibson, in such accounts, becomes a touchstone for failure, a warning to overweening literary stars that their works may be soon forgotten. After all, no one can gainsay posterity, although Gibson in that letter to Frost did at least try, by continuing gloomily on the subject of his dead works, ‘I have no faith that posterity… will be likely to resuscitate them’.

Not much among Gibson's vast oeuvre deserves to have new life breathed into it, but there is one book of his which belongs among the most significant of the First World War. Battle, published in 1915, has been credited as the first poetry to convey what Dominic Hibberd has called 'the actualities of the front line'; in doing so, it was admired by Rosenberg, Gurney and Sassoon, among others. Yet Gibson never saw active service. One of the oddities of First World War literary history is that it took a civilian to teach soldier-poets how to write realistically about their experiences.

So what does this radical work sound like? The counterintuitive answer is that it sounds extremely modest; it creates its effects through understatement, simple repetition, and a deliberately narrow range of formal and linguistic techniques. Take, for example, the short poem ‘Breakfast’:


We ate our breakfast lying on our backs,
Because the shells were screeching overhead.
I bet a rasher to a loaf of bread
That Hull United would beat Halifax
When Jimmy Stainthorp played full-back instead
Of Billy Bradford. Ginger raised his head
And cursed, and took the bet; and dropt back dead.
We ate our breakfast lying on our backs,
Because the shells were screeching overhead.

The form is related to triolet—it could almost be a triolet gone askew. Like triolet, there are only two rhymes, and like triolet, the first line repeats. The paucity of rhymes, the paucity of lines—this poem incorporates a death but ends where it began as though nothing has happened—gives the impression that everything here is mundane. Men at war eat on their backs, argue about football, and get shot and die. If anything, the football is more noteworthy than the sudden death: it certainly takes up more space. And the response to the death is unsentimental; everyone carries on eating breakfast.

‘Breakfast’ was published in the Nation on 17 October 1914, just two months after Britain joined the War. Roger Hogg has pointed out that, a fortnight previously, the same publication had reported the anecdote of a Gordon Highlander: ‘When I got my wound in the leg it was because I got too excited in arguing with Wee Geordie Ferris, of our company, about Queen’s Park Rangers and their chances this season.’ It is not only through commitment to his own native region, or through the hint in that name ‘Wee Geordie Ferris’, that Gibson moves the football teams from London to the North East: of course, he needs the rhyme of ‘Halifax’ with ‘backs’. Gibson also increases the stakes, fittingly enough for a poem in which such a fatal bet takes place: the Highlander’s wound in the leg becomes Ginger’s deadly wound to (we assume) the head. Perhaps we are even to assume that the colour of Ginger’s hair has made him a more conspicuous target. Gibson makes strategic changes but does not work the anecdote too hard; there is no lecturing, no moral lesson, just an account of a fairly standard day at the Front.

To appreciate Gibson’s achievement, it is necessary to bear in mind the kinds of poems which were being written in the early months of the War. Soldier poetry was not yet properly underway; Gibson’s friend Rupert Brooke, who was present at the Siege of Antwerp, may have been the first poet to have written about the War having seen active service, and his famous sequence of sonnets written from October to Boxing Day 1914 was first published in New Numbers (edited by Gibson and Lascelles Abercrombie) several months later. There was rather too much of the loud, patriotic, often jingoistic verse, that inspired Charles Sorley to propose putting a fine on all references to God and England and ‘talk of a just war’. There were poems, mainly by civilians safely advanced in years, urging young men to join up (even Thomas Hardy couldn’t resist writing his ‘Call to National Service’ with its exhortation ‘Up and be doing’ and his wish that he were younger). And there was a smaller group of hand-wringing poems—Hardy wrote some of those, too—which regretted war as a Bad Thing. All these poems were, in their different ways, examples of what Harold Monro attacked as nothing more than newspaper ‘leading articles’.

‘Breakfast’ and the other short poems which Gibson would collect together in Battle are therefore important as much for what they are not, as for what they are. Almost uniquely, they resist the siren songs of the age. The poet who had always sought to rid his verse of what he called ‘confectionery’, preferring the ‘bread and cheese’ sort, had found his subject: his war poetry avoids all pomp and bluster as it homes in on the countless individual horrors which constitute the total reality of the conflict. As Gibson wrote during the Second World War, ‘I cannot think of war only in terms of armies or of contending nations; it is to me a business of innumerable personal tragedies’. So in Battle we read of the man with his legs shot away, the man driven insane and ‘Neck-deep in mud’, the man whose life-blood oozes out of a ‘gaping gash’, but also the man whose homesickness is prompted by the smell of burning peat, and the man who wonders if the old cow on his farm died or not even as he is himself surrounded by the dead. Many of these stories Gibson must have heard recounted by returning veterans, or read (as with ‘Breakfast’) in newspapers of the day. His genius was to realise that, at a time when everyone had a noisy opinion to promulgate in verse, these were the true subjects for poetry.

[This is an edited excerpt from a much longer piece on Wilfrid Gibson and the First World War, forthcoming in Dymock Poets and Friends.]


  1. Thanks for introducing me to that poem! -I know Wilfrid Gibson from primary school days, when the headmaster would read us a poem every week, and one of them was Flannan Isle, which I learned by heart... so he's not *entirely* obscure!

  2. That is some poem. I have sent this link to several football & WWI scholars I know..

  3. ‘When I got my wound in the leg it was because I got too excited in arguing with Wee Geordie Ferris, of our company, about Queen’s Park Rangers and their chances this season.’

    Journalists were just as accurate a century ago as now, it seems: Queen's Park Rangers are a London team; Queen's Park are based in Glasgow. I don't think there's any connexion between them. If Gibson 'never saw active service', where and how did he serve, assuming he's the man in uniform at the top of the essay?

  4. It's an interesting possibility that he meant Queen's Park, but what the soldier reports in the paper (which may have mistranscribed or wrongly 'corrected') is definitely QPR.

    Gibson tried to enlist at least four times from the end of 1915 to August 1916, but was turned down repeatedly. He spent the first half of the following year on a successful reading tour of the United States; after his return, he was considered fit enough to join the Army Service Corps Motor Transport, and he passed the rest of the War in London carrying out packing and clerical work.

  5. Thank you for such an entertaining and enlightening article on both poet and poem. It's too easy to see the greats, Gurney, Sassoon, Owen, as emerging from nothing whereas they grew from a very rich soil indeed.

  6. The poetry in the pity seem to start here.

  7. It is interesting that there is an assumption that soccer is implied in the term "football" rather than rugby (league, or northern union, given the teams involved). Hull "United" existed in neither code, and the term "United" is largely soccer terminology, but I suppose in Gibson's fantasy Hull FC and Hull Kingston Rovers could have fielded a combined side against Halifax. At least both sides played them in the 1914-15 season, which is more than Hull City did (although someone suggested Hull's reserves might have met them).

    Whilst accepting that Halifax were probably brought in purely by the rhyme, I can't help thinking that the old triplet of "Hull, Hell and Halifax" may have underlain the choice of opponents, although it may be a little early for the common assumption of the War as an antechamber to Hell.