Before we get started with reading ‘A Long, Long Way’, let me write one last post that may be useful to those who are trying to get to grips with Stallworthy’s anthology. A couple of years ago a student wrote to me, asking:
What could [you] 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 [me] to consider the arrangement in terms [of] 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?
This question and the answer I gave to it has languished in a relatively unread section of the site. I think that as we shift focus for a while towards Barry’s novel it is good nonetheless to remind ourselves of Stallworthy’s impressive anthology and some ways we might approach how he organises the poems within.
As outlined by the AQA, there are 71 collected ‘poems’ in the First World War section of The Oxford Book of War Poetry, from Thomas Hardy’s ‘Men Who March Away’ (poem 99) to Ted Hughes’ ‘Six Young Men’ (poem 169). That’s a big selection of poems, covering many aspects of the experience of the First World War. We might well wonder: are they arranged in any particular themes?
The answer I have to this question is ‘I don’t know’ and, as Professor Stallworthy died in 2014, I am unlikely to directly divine the intentions of the anthologiser. But let me briefly talk you through a rudimentary plan of attack I have used in teaching how to revise the anthology over the years.
Stallworthy’s Anthology is broadly chronologically organised, but we can trace an underlying logic within this order.
The first poems are early responses to the outbreak of war- Hardy, Brooke, Asquith, Grenfell and so on. Hardy’s ‘Men Who March Away’ was published during the first week of the war- as early a response as you can get, really, from a great and elderly Victorian poet. Grenfell and Brooke’s poems are both romantic responses of young men to the war, and display attitudes to heroism and conflict that gradually become unavailable to the great war poets. McRae’s poem was written in May 1915 and so fits into the chronological pattern; but it also seems to evidence an early and relatively untroubled moral certainty about the conduct of the war.
Then we have the ‘transitional figure’ of Charles Sorely: a poet well versed in the classical poetic tradition who nonetheless seems a bridge between the naiveté of the earlier First World War poets and the later war experience, in which the deaths of millions become a reality.
There follow next two poems with very different moral and political positions regarding the British Professional soldier at the start of the First World War: the first a provocative contemporary musing by A.E. Housman, the second a relatively undistinguished but unashamedly political 1935 poem, in furious argument with the first.
A far more interesting and varied cluster of non-British poets follow, giving perspectives philosophical, aesthetic and political. Sandberg, Frost and Steven’s work evidence the objective and philosophical distance these writers have. Two striking French responses follow these, absurdist and surreal and stimulating; followed by five tumultuous poems by the great Irish poet, WB Yeats (Yeats will surely figure as a crucial poet in our upcoming reading of Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’).
The anthology then focuses on a cluster of collected works by the acknowledged greats of First World War poetry: Sassoon, Thomas, Gurney, Rosenberg and Owen. This is the core of the selection, works of those soldier-poets who for better or worse have defined our understanding of the conflict ever since. Rosenberg and Gurney give us poems from a war experienced by preternaturally artistically talented Privates. Owen and Sassoon’s poems reproduce with skill the peculiar experience of sensitive, intelligent, well-read, traumatised Officers. Thomas’ poems bring an elegiac and mature contemplation of the inherent experience of loss that war inevitably involves.
The two great poet-memoirists of the war follow, Graves and Blunden; it is advisable to read these sections in tandem with their great works, ‘Goodbye to All That’ and ‘Undertones of War’.
Then we have what might best be called a rag-bag of notables writing about the conflict, from Aldington to Binyon. There are straightforward but satisfying lyric poems like ‘Winter Warfare’ and ‘Battlefield’, but formal innovation too- the ever popular (with my students at least) E.E. Cummings, and the ever unpopular David Jones, whose outstanding ‘In Parenthesis’ is read in extract form (and what, after all, do students know- that’s right, I mean you, dear reader) .
After this, Ezra Pound (Ezra’s a he, by the way) and TS Eliot stand 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, Rudyard Kipling and GK Chesterton. These two writers concisely give us the most precise evisceration of the politics of a generation that is found in the anthology. Then follow two female poets, M.W. Cannan and Elizabeth Daryush, thrown in almost as an afterthought (this near complete absence of female voices about the war is the gravest weakness of Stallworthy’s anthology- I have been waiting years for a bright young feminist to get their teeth into this peculiar matter). Finally there are three poems about the first world war written late Twentieth century poets who weren’t alive at the time of the conflict. These strike me as very much photographic ruminations on the First World War, and none of the poems are anywhere near to being the poet’s best; but they each evoke a particular mood of looking backwards from what has now become a grave and forbidding distance.
These compartments are my inventions, but they’ve always worked in the teaching. I hope they will help you get a handle on the anthology. I wonder, do any students or teachers want to add their thoughts on how they approach the anthology?
(Oh, and first prize for the student who can make sense of my title for this article.)