Saturday, 9 October 2010

Brian Gardner: Up the Line to Death

I was at the Bodleian on Thursday and Friday, trying to act like a scholar, and during a quick sortie to Blackwell's I came across a copy of Brian Gardner's Up the Line to Death. Its reissue in 2007 had somehow passed me by, so I now offer the most belated of responses.

Gardner's anthology has one undeniable virtue: first published in 1964, it helped to inspire a renewed interest in the poets of the Great War. Dan Todman has written authoritatively about the ways in which the reading and teaching of Great War poetry became bound up with the anti-Vietnam protests and, more loosely, with a counter-cultural movement which stretched across the latter part of the decade. Gardner was at least partially responsible for creating that possible narrative, in which Great War poetry became cited as evidence proving the wickedness and futility of all wars.

Gardner's introduction runs through a number of myths to establish its case. The fiction that Wilfred Owen kept a collection of 'horror photographs' which he would 'pull out of his pocket and without a word thrust before verbal warriors who had not been in the fighting' is presented as fact. The possibility that soldiers experienced the War in a multitude of ways is quickly disallowed: 'the lice, cold, hunger, fear, wet, and misery were the same', Gardner assures us. And what Gardner calls the 'journey' from the 'idealism' of 1914 to bitterness and anger after the Somme is mapped sketchily but unquestioningly. Gardner selects and regiments his poems so that they will make that particular route-march without the slightest risk of ever straying from the path.

Time is cruel to anthologists because it betrays the limitations of their sensibilities. In this respect, Gardner suffers more than his contemporary, Ian Parsons, whose vastly superior selection, Men Who March Away, was published the following year. Gardner accepts the view that works by Sassoon, Owen and Blunden 'are great poetry in any company', and he acknowledges that 'For the rest, the opinion of the critics seems to have varied widely.' His own opinions are never stated, and can only be guessed at from what is a rather dull and timid selection. Poets such as Edward Shanks, here represented by three poems, have been ignored with good reason by subsequent anthologists. The dozen or so lines from In Parenthesis are better than nothing, but only just. And a comment in the 'Introductory Note' eloquently exposes Gardner's calamitous lack of judgement: 'Lesser-known poems for which I was particularly sorry not to have found room were: 'Death in France' by Carroll Carstairs, 'The Beach Road by the Wood' by Geoffrey Howard, 'After Loos' by Patrick MacGill, 'Private Claye' by D. C. McE. Osborne, and poems by Ivor Gurney.' Gardner can be excused for not having read unpublished work by Gurney, but the thought that the poet of 'Pain' and 'To His Love' has been ignored in favour of slop by Edward Shanks and Robert Nichols is almost unbearable.

Up the Line to Death now possesses only historical interest. A set text for many years in our secondary schools, it symptomised a desire to exploit the poetry of the Great War for political purposes. However noble those purposes may occasionally be, they damage and devalue those writers whose work does indeed amount to 'great poetry in [nearly] any company'.

Update: George Simmers continues the cudgelling here.


  1. My favourite Great War anthology is Vivien Noakes' "Voices of Silence". It may not contain the classic texts but it gave me a much better idea of how most folk saw the war. Plus it does have some real gems.

  2. In Gardner's defence, he was a pioneer, and his anthology does contain a lot of good poems that would otherwise have been unobtainable in 1964.
    His publishers,Methuen, on the other hand, are inexcusable. They must have made many thousands out of this anthology, yet the updated 2007 edition has not bothered to correct serious misprints.
    Edgell Rickword becomes Rickwood, for example, and Graves's The Leveller is given an extra 'not' that makes both logical and syntactic nonsense of one stanza.

  3. Yes, I noticed some of the typos. McCrae becomes McRae at one point, too.

    I like Voices of War, too, Sheenagh. I'd like a bit more help in navigating it, but the issue is always to balance room for poems against room for editorial apparatus. And as Vivien freely acknowledges, not all the poems are good.

  4. I'd like to know more about the Sixties counterculture rethinking Great War poems. I assume you are referring to Britain? I was a peripheral participant in America's anti-Vietnam, Poets Against War movement on college campuses (organized by Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg, and others), and I sure never heard or read any references to WWI. The United States' role in that war was brief and much less deadly, of course, but the perceived attitudinal shift mentioned in Tim's post sort of ties in with his site-popular topic, the lack of Great War poems by American writers. To be brutal about it: Depends on whose ox is being gored.

  5. The First World War has been of no popular interest here in the U.S. since 1941, when Gary Cooper portrayed Sgt. Alvin York on screen.

    When Attenborough's film of "Oh What a Lovely War!" appeared, my English professor insisted that it was made primarily to protest Vietnam ("Why else would they make it now?") and that we should all go see it on that basis. "Johnny Got His Gun" (1971) made a few ripples in the antiwar movement, but only because it "showed what war is really like."

    I used to joke in the '70s that students in my university classes didn't know there *had been* a First World War.

  6. When the play 'Oh What a Lovely War' was first presented in London in 1963, Vietnam was not an issue that engaged the attention of many in Britain and America. The previous September, however, the Cuban missile crisis had threatened to trigger a nuclear war. This, surely, is why so much of the first act is a farcical account of Europe being impelled towards war by idiot leaders who don't know what they are doing. A similar presentation is also found in the historical writings of A.J.P. Taylor at the same time.
    The film, which is so much less-hard-hitting that Littlewood's theatrical production, and which came several years later, might well have been received in America as part of the debate about Vietnam. I watched it recently, and it seemed that Attenborough was mostly making an exercise in nostalgia, a lament for golden Edwardian days lost forever because of the War - which was a far cry from Littlewood's original tough-minded spirit and intention.

  7. That's a good point, George. I agree that the film version is an exercise in nostalgia, primarily.

    This must all be very English, as you say, Ed. I don't think that the Great War has the same cultural freight in the States, not least because American involvement amounted to 18 months.

    Dan Todman talks about much of this in The Great War: Myth and Memory. He points out that 'It is remarkably difficult to find any comparisons being made between the Vietnam War and previous conflicts' in the 1960s. Yet, of course, the change in perception of the Great War, by which it is increasingly seen as a war of futility, increases pace during the decade. Todman attributes this in large measure to the 'disappearance' (i.e. death) of a generation of 'bereaved parents' whose fathers had been killed in the War. People could talk more freely of the War having been futile. I take Dan's point, but I'm not quite so sure: a generation doesn't die all at once (except on the Somme...). I think that this must be one of a number of coinciding factors.

  8. Not biased though are you looking at your bio. As a guide for students through the shifting patterns of social but more importantly literary change it is very good. Next time declare an interest as Tim Vickery would say.

  9. You need to look at the date of the blogpost, and the date of my anthology.

  10. I did, Gardener took something in 1964 and mapped a route through 5 years of poetry that tells a unique story. Why criticise it with a 21st century hat on? My ex students who have gone on to Exeter have enthused about you so I am sorry if I have caused offense.

  11. No offence taken! I was just pointing out I wasn't knocking a rival when I wrote the blogpost. Glad to hear that your students have good experiences of Exeter.