Ask Mr Griffiths

This blog is intended to help A-level students to understand and appreciate World War One literature. To read more about the background of the blog, please read my Welcome to readers.

I teach on the A-level English Literature course at Southfields Academy in Wandsworth, London, UK.

This blog began as a means to make study notes available to students for a key exam text, The Oxford Book of War Poetry. It also gave students at Southfields links to wider reading about the First World War some time before the centennial sparked such interest in the subject. More recently, as the A-level exams have changed, the site has extended its focus to prose about the First World War, in particular Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’ (2005).

In a previous life I gained an MA in literary studies at Royal Holloway, University of London; incredibly, they even let me study for a doctorate on H.G. Wells there. I’m no expert in First World War literature, but I hope that I can pass on what I do know– and, when I’m in the dark, I’ll point you in the direction to those who know more.

Do you have a question that I can help with? Join in by commenting on any post or email me.

78 thoughts on “Ask Mr Griffiths”

  1. hi sir,
    i was wondering whether you could maybe set up a poetry competition on this blog…just for us students and there must not be a price but it would be rally fun to see what the young students come up with. if you think its not a good idea then thats all right!

  2. Hello sir,
    I have got a few questions and would be delighted if you could help me.

    1. ‘When you see millions of mouthless dead’ by Charles Sorley: in the second line it says “Across your dreams in pale battalions go,” what does pale mean here? Also, why is this poem a sonnet, what’s Sorley expressing love for?
    2. What is anaphora? You talked about this technique in “All the hills and vales along” by Charles Sorley but I didn’t understand.

    Thanks (the notes you provide are really GOOD).

    1. Hi Maria. Thanks for being so kind! I hope I can help you.

      1. ‘Pale’ is simply a word used to describe the ghosts of the dead. They’re pale because all the colour of life and blood has gone out of them. Why is ‘When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead’ a sonnet? A good question. I guess it’s poetic covention to write a sonnet about love, but a sonnet doesn’t have to be explicitly about love (though remember that this is a poem about lost loved ones).

      2. Anaphora is simply the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a line. You find it in speeches a lot. Think of Churchill’s famous Second World War address: “We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and on the streets…”. Interestingly, when you get the same kind of repetition at the end of lines, it is known as antistrophe.

  3. wow, this is a great blog a bit neeky but really good….it’s really helpful, thanks and keep it up:):)

  4. Hi sir,
    amazing website you got here 8)
    i was just wondering do you have anything on Futility by Owen, i couldnt seem to find anything on this on the website

    1. Ironically, not yet Kam.

      I’m trying to make my way through the Jon Stallworthy anthology poem by poem– and ‘Futility’ is still around 10 poems away! Sorry.

      Glad you find the website useful, though.

    1. Have a look at my May 9th posting Kate!

      Sorry to all who want notes for poems after Rosenberg in the anthology before the 23rd: it looks like I’m not going to get that far! It’s an ongoing project, and these things take some time to produce. Good luck to all of you in the upcoming exams.

  5. Hello Mr Griffiths-Thanks for making this blog available-my students love it.

    Right now I’m using it in a lesson to show the value of disagreeing- what my students are getting towards though not in these words is that in your view ‘when you see million..’ shows a lack of pity/ bleak world of identity lost etc.

    Briefly what we are exploring is the possibility that though notionally the poem appears to say that the emotional effect of the imagery- whether his assumption that the reader will dream about them, the emotive effect of mouthless, etc, the inferred conventional response of the reader, the gashed head, not only suggests pity, it creates it in the reader- look at the responses of some of the students.

    So there’s a disjunction of apparent intention and actual effect-and I would say the effect wins-perhaps explained by the conflicting emotions necessitated by coming to terms with surviving the experience.

    It’s just another way of looking!


  6. Thanks, Mr. Tanner. I’m glad your students find it useful– and in many ways I hope that it inspires more arguments about poetic meaning than agreement!

    I’m not ashamed to say that mine is necessarily a limited understanding of many of these poems, and my notes are sometimes simplistic or perhaps a little literal. It sounds like your class are approaching the poems in an interesting and subtle manner.

    And, to be honest, I think I am inclined to agree with your students; Sorley’s chilly tone in the poem seems to me to refuse easy sentimentality, but is certainly not without heart; like a satirist, I think he depends on the reader’s ability to understand the irony of statements like “It is easy to be dead”. It seems to me to be quite a moral poem in that sense.

  7. Sir, your analysis of ‘Epitaph For an Army of Mercenaries’ is missing a point: it was written in retaliation of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s description of the BEF as “a contempible army of mercencaries”. While the poem highlights the fatal price that was paid for defending the British realm, the intention was clearly to poke fun at the idea that anyone would fight for their country in the manner that the BEF did for pay.

  8. Hello Mr. Griffiths: concerning Sospan Fach, surely these are not nonsense rhymes. I was struck by the beautiful evocation of the strangely fickle passing of time; how you wish it would pass quick one moment and the next you find that the years have flown by, and how in repeated choruses time goes back and forth. Anyway, thanks for the Robert Graves poem, which I think uses that flexible quality of time. All the best, Ted Clarke.

    1. Hi Ted: you’re right, there is a kind of narrative that runs through the first two verses of ‘Sospan Fach’, but, personally, I can’t help but feel making sense out of it isn’t really the point. Then again, as a Llanelli man, its *meaning* perhaps is a little occluded for me… for me, its a song that *means* community!

  9. Hello, can you help with, ‘A Memory’ by Margaret Sackville please? would very much appreciate it. Thankyou in advance.

  10. Your website has helped me so much throught the course! I’ve read the previous posts, but is there any way you’d be able to put up the E.E Cummings analysis?

    1. I’m so glad the website has helped you, Chloe. I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you though! I’m working through the anthology poem by poem– though this has stalled a bit recently. I’ve got a disabled daughter and a six month old, so I haven’t been able to find much time for poetry analysis! You should find some more poetry notes coming online in the next fortnight, though.

      All the best!

  11. Hey, I’m wondering if you’re going to upload an analysis on T.S Eliot’s ‘Triumphal March’? I’m very interested in this one, it’s one of my personal favourites, and I have my own analysis. I’m just looking for another opinion to compare it with

    1. Not before I get through the rest of the anthology, but ultimately I’ll be interested. I love a lot of Eliot’s poetry. ‘Prufrock’ is one of the greatest poems of the Twentieth century, I think. The natural journey for a student of English literature who has read World War I literature at A-level is to move on to study ‘The Wasteland’ at university…!

  12. Hiya;
    I was wondering if you could shed any light on the line: “Charm, smiling at the good mouth” in the poem ‘These fought in any case’ by Ezra Pound. I would really appreciate it, as my AS teacher doesn’t have a clue as to what it means! 🙂
    Thanks in anticipation!

    1. Hi Rachel– sorry I wasn’t able to reply promptly!

      I’ll read the extract from ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ in detail sometime in the future, but your question has intrigued me since I received it. Frankly, I’m not surprised that your AS teacher is flummoxed by the lines– they’re certainly difficult! I’ve put together a kind of reading, however, which I really would welcome being shot down in flames by someone more learned than I am (not difficult).

      So the passage comes here, between the lines:

      “There died a myriad,
      And of the best, among them,
      For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
      For a botched civilization,

      Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
      Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,

      For two gross of broken statues,
      For a few thousand battered books.”

      What’s striking about these lines concerning charm is that they seem only slightly connected to what comes before and after– they present a kind of odd, fragmentary image that seems to disrupt or interrupt the other lines that make a heavy judgement on European civilisation. ‘Charm’ seems a peculiar thing to mourn amidst the images of death and decay that hem it in– as if the poet, present at the apocalypse, chose to bemoan a lack of good cocktail party conversation.

      What makes these lines difficult for the contemporary reader is that ‘charm’ means, in its most familiar form, “pleasing, delightful, attractive”. To bemoan the loss of such charm might seem superficial, though of course the loss of charm is no such thing: isn’t life a joy precisely for the charm we find within it? The people, the things that please and delight us? Yet given the vehemence and anger in the adjacent lines, this seems a poor objection. Pound, however, lost many friends in the war: to miss the charm of friends seems to me the most natural thing in the world.

      Yet I think charm has another meaning that is important here, of ‘charm’ meaning a magical object or spell (it’s this ‘charm’, incidentally, that gives us our modern meaning). If we read the lines as saying something about enchantment and disenchantment the lines perhaps make more sense. These are, after all, lines that express deep disenchantment with European civilisation. A continent and an entire generation were laid waste by this civilisation’s inventions, and the lines seem to me to express the doubt that any of it was worth ‘saving’. Perhaps the image here suggests that the enchanting spell cast by this previous world has been broken: I think of Charm personified here as a woman, her face half buried in the earth, her “good mouth” broken and battered like the statues and books. It seems to me to be something Pound feels as a terrible loss nonetheless– the smile and the quick eyes gone forever. In a world with enchantment and magic gone, you are left with a horribly disenchanted material world– a truly unpleasant place in which to live (Eliot would call it a ‘Wasteland’).

      Anyway, those are my thoughts. Take them or leave them! Thanks for asking such a thoughtful question.

      1. perhaps EP means something like:- “there died…charm smiling with (instead of “at”) the good mouth, quick eyes….”

        If you try other ways – charm smiling WITH the good mouth; charm smiling FROM the good mouth, charm smiling USING the good mouth etc etc none seems to work quite as felicitously (albeit puzzlingly) as “at”. I don’t think “at the good mouth” is too weird for Ezra to have used. and the use of the definite article “the” also provides an objectification of “mouth” that adds-in a good ironical charge.


      2. Well, the key-question to me here is not “charme” but “good mouth”. What is a “good mouth”? Is it simply a good, nice mouth or is it a teller of good stories (who spread a lot of charm by telling)? So that the receivers saw a öot of charm in his “good mouth”, meaning his telling?

  13. Hi sir.

    I love this blog ! It helped me a lot with my AS English literature course !

    I have a question if you could help me with analysis of ‘Magpies in Picardy’ by T.P. Cameron Wilson. I have some rough notes on this poem, but I don’t really understand it. I understand that the birds that are in this poem represent different types of people… [and] I know this poem presents a magpie who is a voice of knowledge, who observes the war and shares with us his ideas. I found a few literary devices, made connections to war, but I don’t understand the idea of ‘folklore superstition- idealistic magpies’. I would be glad to see what you might tell me about this poem.

    Thank you 🙂

  14. This is really superb, I am studying edward thomas at the moment. I know it is hard to analyse a poem, but could you please outline ‘Aspens’ by Edward Thomas? I know it isnt strictly a war poem. However my teacher has not really taught this well to me and it would be incredibly helpful if you could. If not that is fine. The notes on ‘Rain’ are awesome!!!

    Max Brown

  15. Thanks for the thoughts on Sorely and Brooke’s poems – very helpful for my current essay! 🙂 Keep it up, and whenever I come across other poems, I’ll look them up here and see if you’ve written anything about them!

  16. Hello sir,

    Could you give me a list of all the poems that we need to know for the exam?

    I’m concerned that we haven’t been taught all of them….:S

    1. A good question, Jonathan. My thoughts are that your teacher has probably chosen to teach only the key poems in the Stallworthy anthology– those which AQA may chose to base questions on in 1b.

      Have a look at the front page for the full story. Thanks for bringing up the issue!

    1. I really don’t know, Shannon. Owen’s poems in the Stallworthy anthology are next after Rosenberg’s, but I think it’s unlikely I’ll tackle any before the AS exam on the 16th.

  17. It’s interesting how I saw the AQA correction that any poem can be pulled out two days before the exam, then they go ahead and pull out a question about Kipling’s Epitaphs! I mean, wow. Anyway, the other question was good, so I attempted that instead.

  18. Hey,

    absolutely love this blog, its saved me so much with revision! was just wondering if you happened to have any notes on any more of the ‘here to eternity’ anthology?

    Thanks for all your help!

  19. How come you haven’t done ‘Futility’ I thought you would have, considering the title of your blog?……
    thanks 🙂 xx

  20. Dear Mr Griffiths,

    Your notes on the Edward Thomas poems ‘AS the Team’s Head Brass’ and ‘Rain’ have been such an enormous help to me- I cannot thank you enough!

    I am studying OCR AS english literature which includes a large collection of Edward Thomas poems, and I was wondering whether you could do notes on the following poems? ‘March’, ‘Old Man’, ‘Tears’, ‘But these things also’, ‘Melancholy’, ‘The Glory’, ‘Words’, ‘Aspens’, ‘This is no case of petty right or wrong’, ‘No one so much as you’, ‘The sun used to shine’, ‘Gone, gone again’ and ‘Lights out’

    There’s a website called ‘Great War Literature’ that has in depth notes on all these poems available for download for £20 but your notes are so much better because the website takes a wholly war interpretation which is not what the exam board are looking for! I know i’m asking a lot, but I know many people who would happily pay for your notes, they are so great!!

    Please reply!

    Regards and thanks- Isabella Smith 🙂

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Isabella. I’m hoping to go through the WWI verse in Stallworthy’s Oxford Book of War Poetry before I tackle anything else- and unfortunately I’m very much snowed under by work at the moment! The blog has had to take a backseat for a little bit, but I’m hoping this summer to have the time to begin writing study notes again.

  21. Dear Mr Griffith,

    I am an AS student currently studying WWI Literature including John Stallworthy’s anthology of War Poems. I find myself quite puzzled on a poem I most recently have been set to annotate, it is ‘Triumphal March’ by T.S. Eliot. I would be very greatful for some assistance with this if possible and you are able to.

    Many Thanks.

  22. Dear Sir, I was going through your posts and I’m sincerely and deeply thankful for your precious insight herein. Have a nice day or night, wherever you are.

  23. On your blog you have a map of the Battle of Gheluvelt. can you pls advise where you obtained this? I would like to use it in a publication I am preparing for the Royal British Legion in Surrey.

  24. Hi, do you have, or know where I would be able to find any exemplar students responses to the Poetry section of the exam? Thanks for your blog- it’s really interesting and supporting our study of the poems. 🙂

  25. Hello, just a quick question. I was wondering what would be the best poem that represents heroism and how soldier are glorified for their bravery in battle. It would be a great help, thank you!!

    1. Read The Iliad by Homer if you want to understand what a hero is, and what the glorification of heroism is all about. There’s a bloodcurdling extract at the start of Stallworthy’s collection.

    1. I have few, to be honest. I can only comment within the AQA selection. I’m not a great fan of ‘The Men Who March Away’–I’m sure it felt dated even when it was written– and ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’ is a minor, conservative, rather bland work, if you ask me (which you did, I’m afraid). A great novelist though.

    1. I’ve already written a little on it (and had some interesting readings as replies). Just look up this page a little. That’s as much as anyone will be getting on Pound from me for a wee while.

  26. What could say about the arrangement of the WW1 poems in the Oxford Book of War Poetry? I’ve read the introduction where Stallworthy said they were mainly chronological. I was wondering if you knew which were the exceptions and why? My teacher asked to consider the arrangement in terms the exam question, where I think I’m right in saying that one of the questions tends to ask about how a poem fits into the whole selection? Aside from being chronological are they arranged in any particular themes?

    Thanks for all the helpful notes so far – this blog is amazing!

    1. Thanks Emma. Sorry for not getting back to you. This question is worth a blog post all of its own; yes, Stallworthy is largely chronological, but it is possible to see a logic to his order. So, for example, first we find early responses to the outbreak of war- Hardy, Brooke, Grenfell and so on. Then we have the ‘transitional figure’ of Charles Sorely, who seems a bridge between the naiveté of the earlier First World War poets and later poetic experience. An interesting and varied cluster of non-British poets follows, giving perspectives philosophical, aesthetic and political; then collected works from the acknowledged greats of Sassoon, Thomas, Gurney, Rosenberg and Owen. The two great poet-memoirists of the war follow, Graves and Blunden; and then what might best be called a rag-bag of notables writing about the conflict, from Aldington to Binyon. After this, Pound and Eliot sit together as the great Modernist shock troops of the large ‘looking back on the war’ section. Following them are two embittered (and great) late-Victorian poet-provocateurs, Kipling and Chesterton; two female poets, Cannan and Daryush thrown in almost as an afterthought (this is the gravest weakness of Stallworthy’s anthology); and finally three poems about the first world war written by poets who weren’t alive to see it. These sections are my inventions, but they’ve always worked in the teaching. Hope this helps.

  27. Hello Mr Griffiths,

    do you use scientific literature to analyse the poems? I have to write about Isaac Rosenberg’s poems “Returning, we hear the larks” and “On receiving news of the war” for university, but it is really hard to find literature on those two, I haven’t been successful yet. If you know any, I would be really gratetful!

    Kind regards,

    1. Do you mean ‘academic literature’ here? To be honest, as a lowly secondary school teacher, I have little academic literature or time at my disposal. I always shudder when I get an email request from an undergraduate to cite this blog: it really isn’t an academic site at all, but an exam study and resource tool. However, at secondary level, one book that I always recommend my students read as an introduction to critical perspectives on the war is Jon Stallworthy’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, which contains short critical accounts of the collected work of twelve key war poets. I guess that Paul Fussell’s ‘The Great War and Modern Memory’ is perhaps the most essential piece of criticism on First World War literature: an illuminating and entertaining critical read. Yet Bernard Bergonzi’s excellent ‘Heroes’ Twilight’ also deserves mention I think, and if you can get hold of a copy of the third edition, the preface gives a useful survey of the academic field (until 1996).

      1. Worthy of attention and credit is; what this site contains for in-depth analysis for high school or undergrad degree is very good indeed. The short-coming of this site is breadth – Owen is analysed in great detail, some Sassoon, and other war poets are left very much up to your own devices. What they have, though, is excellent.

  28. Hi there,
    I’m retaking my AS exam for aqa this year in may alongside my A2 Love through the Ages, I don’t really have that much support for the exam and my entire class is struggling with revising for the retake- I was wondering if you could do a post going over how to answer both question one and two as well as what the examiners are looking for?
    I’m not feeling that confident with the exam and feel as though I’m just treading water with my revision without understanding the structure.
    Sorry to be a bother!
    -Esther 🙂

    1. I’d love to, but I can’t promise it at the moment. I think yours is a good idea for a post though; I’ll try and bear it in mind. The new A-level is a bit hard to get your head around, isn’t it? It’s the dame for teachers too!

  29. Hello, good sir! Thank you for your notes to Housman’s Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries; my friend and I were discussion it without context this morning and agreed we historical context was essential: thank you for providing it! 🙂 Daniel

  30. Hi sir this blog is really helping me with understanding A Long Long Way….. The analysis we’re taught seems superficial in comparison to your blog. I’m really struggling to learn it all at the moment so please keep posting!!!!!!!

  31. Fantastic Blog – do you have all of the posts in a single document. At the moment I am spending some time ‘cut and pasting’ them in to a word document!

  32. Hi sir

    Will you do any analysis for a long long way? It would be useful if you want though the structure of the novel, themes and the devices used in the novel. It would be much appreciated.

  33. Hey ,can someone help me out and tell me
    1.What attitude or attitudes toward its subject does Houseman’s poem express?
    2.In MacDiarmind’s reply ,what is the attitude toward the mercenaries? Toward Houseman’s poem?
    By the way i’m not a native student and i am having difficulties in answering these questions by myself so i wanted to ask your opinion ..

    1. Hi Blerta, I think- and I’m not being facetious here- the answers to your questions (as you’ve put them) are in the analyses I’ve already made! Read again- or phrase your questions more precisely, I’d say. All the best.

  34. Hello! Thank you very much for your posts on ALLW, they are very helpful as I cannot find many other resources on the book. In future could you perhaps analyse key themes? And especially, what parts of the book do you think are important in regards to Willie finding his own identity?
    Thanks a lot,

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