Friday 28 March 2014

BBC Documentary on Ivor Gurney

My documentary on Ivor Gurney, directed by Clive Flowers, will be broadcast this Sunday, 30 March, at 9pm on BBC4.

Several years ago, a number of scholars specialising in the First World War were invited to a jointly-organised AHRC/BBC event in London. We discussed our work, and gave our views on how the BBC might mark the forthcoming centenary. There I met an executive producer, Mike Poole, who, as luck would have it, had always wanted to commission a programme about Gurney. So he approached Clive, making him the gift of a rather startled academic with no previous TV experience as presenter.

The filming process, although exhausting, was an absolute joy. Locations included the Somme (where Gurney was shot), Passchendaele (gassed), the Royal College of Music, and some of the hills around Gloucester which inspired Gurney's greatest poetry. Thanks to Ryan's stunning camerawork, it is easy to appreciate why Gurney loved these landscapes. We were also lucky to interview such eloquent experts, my biggest regret being that, for an hour-long documentary, so much superb material ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Lost in the no-place of the asylum for the last 15 years of his life, Gurney complained constantly that he had not received the 'honour' that was due to him. Wishing for death, he felt forgotten, betrayed, exiled from his native Gloucestershire and condemned to lingering torture. I thought about that a great deal as I was helping to make this documentary. The programme is intended as some small and belated recompense, a homage to an extraordinary genius who remains underappreciated even today.  

Thursday 20 February 2014

Conference: British Poetry of the First World War, 5-7 September 2014, Wadham College, Oxford

The programme is now confirmed for the conference on British Poetry of the First World War, to be held at Wadham College, Oxford, on 5-7 September 2014.

There will be 17 sessions and over 60 speakers, including keynotes by Edna Longley and Jay Winter. Jon Stallworthy, the conference patron, will also be speaking. Subjects range from discussions of individual poets such as Owen and Sassoon to wider considerations of the canonisation of war poetry, the role of women, the teaching of war poetry in schools, and the influence of war poets on subsequent writers.

On Friday night, 5 September, acclaimed baritone Roderick Williams will be accompanied by a leading young pianist, Gary Matthewman, to perform war-related music by Ireland, Finzi, Vaughan Williams, Gurney and others. The next evening, the conference dinner will take place in Wadham College Hall.

There is a dedicated conference website here, and any bookings before 1 March are entitled to an Early Bird discount. Overnight accommodation at Wadham College is now bookable at special conference rates.

Tuesday 21 January 2014

Rupert Brooke, Julian Grenfell, and Homer

I have blogged separately about Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell. They were the earliest fatalities of all the War's significant poets, and despite the immense popularity of their work for many decades, in recent times their reputations have suffered because they discomfort us with truths about war which we would rather not acknowledge. Brooke, in particular, has become a byword for naivety, his example counterblasted by Owen's and Sassoon's bitter voices of experience. If Brooke had lived longer, the argument goes, he would have learnt better. The recent anthologist who condemns Brooke's 'life-diminishing ideas' and 'sick philosophy' articulates opinions which are regularly heard in schoolrooms and beyond.

Far from being a foolish innocent, Brooke in 1914 knew more about war than almost any of his contemporaries. Granted a commission in the Royal Naval Division---a new amphibious unit of Winston Churchill's devising---he had been helpless at the siege and fall of Antwerp as what he later called 'one of the greatest crimes in history' played out: 'Hundreds of thousands of refugees, their goods on barrows and hand-carts and perambulators and wagons... the old men mostly weeping, the women with hard drawn faces... That's what Belgium is now: the country where three civilians have been killed to every one soldier.' Brooke understood the  nature of modern conflict, foreseeing the 'incessant mechanical slaughter'. Nevertheless, appalling as it was, the sacrifice must be made, not only to protect England from a similar fate, but for compelling humanitarian reasons: 'I've seen the half million refugees in the night'.

Back in England, Brooke wrote the five sonnets of '1914' as a 'rallying cry' to a nation which didn't yet realise what 'sacrifices --- active or passive' would be required of its citizens. The Dean of St Paul's read the last of these ('The Soldier') from the pulpit on Easter Sunday, 4 April 1915. Less than three weeks later, on St. George's Day, Brooke was dead, having succumbed to septicaemia following a mosquito bite. Winston Churchill, in his obituary for Brooke published on 26 April, celebrated a man who 'was all that one could wish England's noblest sons to be in days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable'. The apotheosis was complete: tens of thousands of copies of Brooke's poetry were sold every year until well into the 1960s, and every subsequent soldier-poet was obliged to wrestle with Brooke's legacy.

The first to do so was Julian Grenfell. Grenfell was Eton and Oxford, Brooke Rugby and Cambridge; Grenfell was a hearty in extremis (boxing, hunting), Brooke an aesthete. Yet the two men had friends in common, such as Patrick Shaw Stewart, and Grenfell would soon have known Brooke's fate. On 29 April 1915, six days after Brooke's death, Grenfell wrote his most famous poem, 'Into Battle'. Its opening stanza makes extraordinary claims:

The naked earth is warm with spring,
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun's kiss glorying,
And quivers in the loving breeze;
And Life is Colour and Warmth and Light,
And a striving evermore for these;
And he is dead who will not fight;
And who dies fighting has increase.

What starts like a gorgeous invocation of spring's renewal becomes suddenly strange and disturbing. Readers carried along by rhyme and anaphora ('And... And... And... And... And...') will find themselves assenting to statements which are, at best, controversial: 'And he is dead who will not fight; / And who dies fighting has increase.' Elizabeth Vandiver, the poem's most perceptive critic, points out that Grenfell's debt is not to Christian but to classical tradition, especially to Homer's Iliad with its belief that the reputational glory gained through a brave death in battle provides 'increase'. As a demonstration, Vandiver quotes Sarpedon's speech to Glaucus in Iliad 12: 'My dear friend, if the two of us could flee this war and be forever ageless and immortal, I would not fight on among the foremost warriors nor would I send you into the battle that brings a man glory. But as it is, since thousands of death spirits crowd upon us, which no mortal can flee nor ward off, let us go; either we will yield glory to another, or someone will yield it to us.'

Without challenging Vandiver's belief in the poem's Homeric perspective, it is possible to see that, in the days after Brooke's death, Grenfell was also influenced by something closer to hand: Brooke's '1914'. The line 'And he is dead who will not fight' --- a concise expression of the paradox that we are only truly alive when we dare to risk our lives --- comes close to Brooke's opening sonnet, 'Peace', with its dismissal of those who will not fight as 'sick hearts that honour could not move, / And half-men'. As for Sarpedon's speech, it is mediated through the octave of Brooke's third sonnet, 'The Dead':

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
      There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old,
      But, dying, had made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
      Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
      That men call age; and those who would have been,
Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

Sarpedon tells Glaucus that they may as well sacrifice themselves, as one day they will die anyway; if they could achieve immortality by fleeing the battle, they should do so. Brooke makes the sacrifice of the War's early victims more complete. These men outdo even Homeric heroes. In Grenfell's terms, they 'ha[ve] increase', being 'rich'. At the same time, they (unlike Sarpedon) have been prepared to sacrifice their 'immortality'; that is, they give those never-to-be-conceived 'sons' when they give themselves. This is the ultimate sacrifice, all the richer for losing far more than mere life.

Monday 4 November 2013

F. W. Harvey, POW Poet

Thanks to the work of my PhD student, Grant Repshire, the papers of F. W. Harvey will be made available to the public later this month at the Gloucestershire Archives. Grant's project is the result of a collaboration between the University of Exeter, the Archives, and the F. W. Harvey Society and Estate. As well as curating and cataloguing the collection, Grant is preparing a full doctoral thesis in the form of a new biography. Harvey's papers include an unpublished novel (due to appear from the History Press in 2014), poetry notebooks, scrapbooks, and correspondence. Among the treasures are many previously unseen letters from Harvey's close friend, Ivor Gurney.

Harvey survived the War, having been captured in 1916 during a daring solo trench raid. As a POW, he was moved from camp to camp, and later wrote about his experiences in Comrades in Captivity. There were, of course, the obligatory escape attempts, including a leap from a moving train which resulted in swift recapture. There was also the opportunity to write poems: the various commandants were civilised enough to allow Harvey to send home his work, where it was published to great acclaim. Many of those POW poems are collected in this edition, and one or two and can be found online here.
The wonders of social technology mean that you can now follow F. W. Harvey on Twitter (@FWHarvey), where he will tell you all about his incarceration, his inspirational role in the first trench newspaper (which, contrary to received opinion, was not The Wipers Times), his love of cricket, and much else besides.
P.S. Grant emails to tell me that Harvey's Gloucestershire Friends: Poems from a German Prison Camp can be read online here.

Saturday 26 October 2013

On Seamus Heaney's Last Poem

The Guardian is today running an article on 'Seamus Heaney's last poem'. Whether 'In a Field' can sustain that billing, the small print acknowledges, we don't yet know for sure: 'the papers he left behind are yet to be fully examined'. So, for 'last' read 'latest'. Nevertheless, if even Heaney's final text message enjoys laudatory reviews, his late, latest and last poems should expect enthusiastic attention. 

The poem was commissioned by Carol Ann Duffy, who asked writers to 'contribute to a memorial anthology marking the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war'. Each poet should find a letter, diary entry or poem from the time as a starting-point for their own work. Heaney chose Edward Thomas's 'As the Team's Head-Brass' (given as 'Head brass', without its hyphen, in the Guardian article), and has written a strong poem in response. The article quotes Matthew Hollis reporting that Heaney considered this to be 'perhaps his favourite' poem, but the sub-editing has probably muddled up what Hollis said. Heaney must have been talking about Thomas's poem, not his own: 'He admired what he called its "Homeric plane": the way a local conversation shadowed events on the world's field.' It's hard to imagine such a modest man as Heaney, even in private conversation, praising his own work for its 'Homeric plane'.

How many of his fellow contributors avoid the traps remains to be seen, but Heaney has been too astute to reach for barbed wire, shell-shocked Tommies, no-man's-land and dulce et decorum est, or to wring his hands at the horror and futility of it all. 'In a Field' is a beautifully poised poem of restitution, in which a demobbed soldier takes the young child by the hand and leads him 'Through the same old gate into the yard / Where everyone has suddenly appeared, / All standing waiting.' There is something of self-elegy about this ending (which is presumably why Duffy refers to it, with a certain exaggeration, as 'heartbreakingly prescient'). The journey through the gate is both physical and metaphysical, and those family members who have 'suddenly appeared', as if by magic, are simultaneously greeting the young child (and the war veteran) in this world and the recently deceased in the next. To borrow an ambiguous phrase which Heaney always enjoyed, 'In a Field' is a poem of 'seeing things'. It is much smaller than Thomas's poem, and wisely makes no attempt to compete, but it manages an understated perfection.

Thursday 17 October 2013

The BBC's coverage of the First World War

You can find an anthology of teasers for the BBC's centenary coverage of the First World War here. Yours truly appears at 10:04, introducing Ivor Gurney. From these brief highlights, the programmes look very promising. The BBC has evidently thought about how to challenge prevailing myths, hence much discussion about the necessity of the War, and more importantly, the necessity of winning it. Also apparent are attempts to move away from the Western Front: attention is given to the role of women at home, and to the fact that this was a world war (the clue being in the name, after all).

History, particularly social history, dominates throughout. Poetry is accommodated via the Gurney documentary and a programme exploring some of the writers who fought at the Somme. I hope that the BBC will commission more documentaries about the art and literature of the War over the next five years.