Monday, 13 February 2012

Arthur Graeme West

Type 'Arthur Graeme West' into Google Images and you will not find his likeness. He is one of those faceless soldier-poets who haunt the outer limits of the literary canon, his memory kept alive only by one or two poems which have recurred sporadically in anthologies of First World War poetry. Gardner, Silkin, Walter and Noakes overlook his work completely; Parsons includes one of his poems in Men Who March Away; and Hibberd and Onions have two in The Winter of the World. Hibberd has proven to be his greatest champion, having edited West's Diary of a Dead Officer (1918, rev. ed. 1991) and written his entry for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Editing my anthology of First World War poetry for Oxford World's Classics, I have grown particularly interested in those soldier-poets who are responsible for a small number of unforgettable lyrics and no other poetry of note. West belongs in that company, alongside Patrick Shaw Stewart, Julian Grenfell, and T. P. Cameron Wilson. His exemplary works are 'God! How I Hate You, You Young Cheerful Men!' and 'The Night Patrol', the latter being the more brilliant, and lesser known, of the two. The diary in which they were published is equally absorbing, and can be read in its entirety here. (The same site carries the memorial volume by H. Rex Freston which provoked West to write 'God! How I Hate You'.) West's diary is a textbook example of that supposedly commonplace progression from idealism to bitterness, as its author gradually loses his belief in God and his belief in the war effort. 'If there is a God at all responsible for governing the earth,' West concludes amidst the destruction, 'I hate and abominate Him.'

West was killed by a sniper's bullet in March 1917. Here is a good minor poem, nowhere anthologised, which conveys the bewildering—yet liberating—effects wrought on his beliefs by the War:

The End of the Second Year

One writes to ask me if I've read
Of 'the Jutland battle,' of 'the great advance
Made by the Russians,' chiding—'History is being made
These days, these are the things
That are worth while.'
                                                      Not to one who's lain
In Heaven before God's throne with eyes abased,
Worshipping Him, in many forms of Good,
That sate thereon; turning this patchwork world
Wholly to glorify Him, point His plan
Toward some supreme perfection, dimly visioned,
By loving faith: not these to him, when, stressed
By some soul-dizzying woe beyond his trust,
He lifts his startled face, and finds the Throne
Empty, and turns away, too drunk with Truth
To mind his shame, or feel the loss of God.

Update: West's image can be found here. Thank you to Austin Ballad of Scudding Under Bare Poles for pointing this out.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting stuff; I must admit that I've never really looked into war poetry, but from what I've read here, it seems fascinating. What an interesting way to learn about history!