Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology

Poetry of the First World War is published today by Oxford University Press. It comes to 312 pages, plus an introduction and editorial notes. Dates of composition range from September 1914 (Binyon's 'For the Fallen' and Kipling's 'For All We Have and Are') to September 1966 (Blunden's 'Ancre Sunshine'). I have also included several poems by Ivor Gurney which have never previously been published. 

Any anthologist of First World War poetry needs to tackle one question. Hasn't it been done before? The answer, of course, is: yes, many times. A war poetry anthology appeared in 1914, and the first soldier-poet anthology two years later. Frederic Brereton's An Anthology of War Poems (1930), accompanied by an introduction from Edmund Blunden, already contained many of the poets whom we would now consider canonical. The 1960s saw a new wave of anthologies, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of War. Yet by that stage their editorial biases were beginning to look exposed. Brian Gardner's Up the Line to Death (1964), which continues to be used as a teaching text even today, fails to find room for a single woman amongst its 72 civilian- and soldier-poets.

An anthology like Gardner's, so egregious in its prejudices, demonstrates why each generation feels the need to revisit, challenge and revise the canon. There can be no definitive version, no last word. It is also true to say that contemporary editors have a considerable advantage over Gardner and his peers. Ian Parsons wrote in his introduction to Men Who March Away (1965) that 'To ascertain the precise date of composition of more than a hundred poems, many of which were written in the trenches and not published until long afterwards, was clearly impossible.' No doubt this explained why the first poem in his anthology (Edward Thomas's 'The Trumpet') was written after the last (Thomas Hardy's 'In Time of "The Breaking of Nations"'). But it did also allow Parsons to create what has now become an all-too-familiar trajectory from idealism to bitterness, in ignorance or wilful defiance of historical chronology.

Today we have no such excuse. We know so much more than our predecessors, and are able to use authoritative editions (by, for example, Jon Stallworthy on Wilfred Owen, Vivien Noakes on Isaac Rosenberg, and Edna Longley on Edward Thomas) to pinpoint the order of composition and—as far as possibleestablish accurate texts. My anthology annotates every poem with a date of composition as well as detailed textual and explanatory notes. It has proven a Herculean task, made possible only by the brilliant scholarship of previous editors. I am not so dry-as-dust to maintain that the notes are more important than the poems, but stubborn facts do provide a corrective to our natural tendency to mythologise the War according to our own preoccupations and agendas. More than that, the notes should help to make the overly familiar strange, or at least allow it to be viewed from different perspectives: the fact that Winston Churchill (no less), as a young war reporter, was using the phrase dulce et decorum est pro patria mori ironically in his newspaper account of the Soudan campaign (1898) ought to give pause to those who believe that Owen's famous poem does something original and revolutionary.

Here are the poets I have included in the anthology:

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
A. E. Housman (1859-1936)
May Sinclair (1863-1946)
W. B. Yeats (1865-1939)
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
Laurence Binyon (1869-1943)
Charlotte Mew (1869-1928)
Robert Service (1874-1958)
Edward Thomas (1878-1917)
Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (1878-1962)
Mary Borden (1886-1968)
Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)
Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)
Julian Grenfell (1888-1915)
T. P. Cameron Wilson (1888-1918)
Patrick Shaw Stewart (1888-1917)
Ivor Gurney (1890-1937)
Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918)
Arthur Graeme West (1891-1917)
Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
Margaret Postgate Cole (1893-1980)
May Wedderburn Cannan (1893-1973)
Charles Sorley (1895-1915)
Robert Graves (1895-1985)
David Jones (1895-1974)
Edmund Blunden (1896-1974)
Edgell Rickword (1898-1982)
Music Hall and Trench Songs


  1. It's fortuitous, serendipitous and, well, just grand that after several months absence I have returned to the fold on the first day following the official debut of your latest master stroke. (My copy is already on order.) Now, having read the three posts I had missed, and remembering the good old days of the WP blog, I am prompted to ask: Did any of those lovely and lively discussions provide new inspiration or a revised interpretation or perhaps even alter your final selections here? The stacks of comments often read like the transcript of a graduate seminar... Anyway, congratulations galore!

  2. Hi Tim,
    Congratulations, sounds like you've curated a seminal anthology with a breadth of inclusion no-one else has attempted.
    I'd really like to review it; any chance I could get hold of a review copy?

  3. Tim, the obvious omissions from your selection are Richard Aldington and Herbert Read. Was there nothing, by either poet, that you considered important enough to include?

  4. Vivien, if I can answer your question with a question: which poets should I have dropped to make room for them? The poet I most regret leaving out is Gilbert Frankau. Ed --- thanks for yours. Good to have you back! Yes, I did learn a lot from contributors to this blog. I remember George Simmers, for example, mentioning 'That Shit Shute', which I already knew about but which I may not otherwise have included.

  5. Other than Aldington and Read, you have also omitted Robert Nicholls of those poets memorialised in Westminster Abbey. Clearly that list in itself was a product of its own time, but perhaps a token representation of those three was called for, if only to acknowledge that some clerics (and others) once thought them important. The omission I would regret most is that St Eloi oddity of TE Hulme (via Ezra Pound).

  6. Well, I would just like to say how much I am enjoying the anthology. No carping for me! Your choice, Tim, did for me what all good anthologies should do, allow me to share someone else's reading, a genuine reading, with no bowing or scraping.

  7. With so many books written on war that detail the horrors, the campaigns and battles, what a unit may have done in battle or the individual biographies on soldiers; war poetry is still the one very personal way we can read/feel how a soldier felt or was thinking at that very moment so long ago. I don't think it gets more personal. I have read through many books on this very subject and the war poetry is always one of the more moving. Regardless of how many times it may have done previously; re-visiting and having these re-printed again over the years only allows those who haven't seen them before to get the chance to see them for the first time; and remind those who have seen them before, to re-read them again.