I’m currently reading Frederic Manning’s ‘Her Privates We’ in an excellent edition published by Serpent’s Tail Classics. It’s a major First World War text, much regarded by great modernist writers such as Hemingway, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound– and I must say that, as I read, I haven’t enjoyed any piece of writing from the period quite so much since I read ‘Goodbye To All That’, long ago. I’m sure I’ll return to it on the blog at some point in the future (together with some posts about Jules Verne’s ‘The Begum’s Fortune’ and Jessie Pope), should I have the chance.
Anyway, I found that, as I read ‘Her Privates We’, I was having trouble with something that I think you, as A-level students, will also have trouble with as you start your course. If you’re studying ‘Journey’s End’, ‘Goodbye to All That’ or any other First World War text, it helps to know the hierarchy of the British Army; to know your Private from your Captain from your Major. I found a simple explanation on the structure of an infantry battalion on the always informative website ‘The Long, Long Trail’, here. Check it out if you want to know your Batman from your Band Sergeant.
Today at Southfields Community College we held our A-level Easter revision sessions. It was great to feedback on students’ brilliant creative writing and push on with our preparations for the exams. Indeed, good luck to everyone who have their exams upcoming. Use the holidays wisely– but remember to find time to relax, too!
Before moving on from Sassoon in the anthology, I thought it might be useful to post a few links to resources about him on the web. And, if you want to refresh a little on Siegfried Sassoon ahead of the exams, then you’re in luck. Our friends at the BBC have archived a fascinating episode about Sassoon made for one of Radio Four’s best programmes, ‘In Our Time’. Three top Sassoon scholars and Melvyn Bragg discuss the man, his life, the war and his poetry. If you’re serious about success in a month and a half’s time, you really should make an effort to listen to this.
Radio Four isn’t the only audio resource for Sassoon you can listen to on the web. If you link to The Poetry Archive, you’ll find Sassoon reading ‘Everyone Sang’ and ‘The Dug Out’, in his expressive, cut-glass English accent.
Hop on from there over to the ever-useful First World War Poetry Digital Archive, where you can look through the Sassoon digital archive and find many of the original written drafts for Sassoon’s poetry. Read the excellent brief biography there, then search for any poem you’re interested in: if you’re interested in curiosities you can, for example, find ‘Glory of Women’ written on Craiglockheart War Hospital stationary. Moreover the website also has links to a number of useful sites that you can access, here.
Once done with Oxford you can then visit the competition at the Cambridge Library site, where you’ll find a series of pages dedicated to an old Sassoon exhibition, ‘Dream Voices: Siegfried Sassoon, memory and war’. The library purchased a collection of Sassoon’s journals in 2009, and this site contains a number of his drawings and handwritten drafts of poetry. Most interesting, I think, are the journals that agonise over justifications for the war: “I wish I could believe”, he writes, “that Ancient War History justifies the indefinite prolongation of the war… Our peace terms remain the same “the destruction of Kaiserism + Prussionism” – I don’t know what this destruction represents”. There are, however, also some rather more lighthearted pictures drawn by Sassoon as a ten year old that attest colourfully to the young boy’s love of hunting. All in all, some fascinating images.
What was life like for the average soldier in the First World War? It is, of course, a crucial question that every literature student studying the war should be able to answer. If we don’t know what the experience of the average Tommy was, how can we make reasonable judgements on the representation of the war by poets, dramatists and novelists?
Is this poem sentimental? Is that dramatist being sensational or realistic? Is this novelist describing the ordinary– or the extraordinary? You can’t function as a literary critic without making these kind of judgements. And of course, if you’re an AS student with AQA, you’ll know that one of the Assessment Objectives that you must meet in coursework and examinations is to “Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received”. Which means that when studying for the AQA AS exam, a knowledge of history matters.
So: here are some links that will help you to understand what life on the front line was like for your average infantryman and soldier.
The BBC’s history website, as ever, provides excellent resources for those studying the First World War. Their six-part World War One movie presents an accessible visual account of a soldier’s life, from ‘Volunteering and Recruitment’ onwards. The site also has a powerful account of his wartime experience from Harry Patch, one of the last British survivors of WWI.
Durham University also has a fabulous website entitled ‘What was it really like to fight in the First World War?’. Its gateway allows you to explore the everyday life and combat experience of soldiers through a number of primary sources. I found the page that describes the structure of a typical infantry regiment during the war very useful- it can be really confusing trying to grasp the hierarchy of platoons, companies, regiments, battalions and so on. Well, it’s all here.
Chris Baker’s website, ‘The Long, Long Trail’ goes into even more detail about the composition of an infantry battalion, and you can find it here. But it is his resource, ‘Soldier’s Life’, that every conscientious AS student should read. You can learn about Basic training in Abergele; look at birds-eye views of trench designs; look at a table of all the crimes a British soldier could commit, and the punishments they might face; and see, movingly, the Army telegrams and forms that were sent home in the event of death. This is one of the best First World War resources on the web.
Over at the History Learning Site there’s a short account of what an infantryman’s life was like, with especial focus on Lewis gun teams. These were the men who wore what was known as the suicide badge, ‘LG’. It was rumoured that the badge meant death if captured by the enemy, such was the loathing reserved for enemy machine gunners. In fact, as Robert Graves testifies in ‘Goodbye to All That’, neither German nor British Prisoners of War were safe when captured by the enemy: loathing and mission expediency all too often led to impromptu executions.
Finally, the essential way for a literature student to learn about the life of soldiers during the First World War is to read the memoirs produced by those who fought. When asked what memoir is best for A level students to read about the war, I always recommend the book mentioned above: ‘Goodbye to All That‘. Graves’ book is vivid but unsentimental. Graves himself is humane but can be almost chilly in his objectivity when writing about his wartime experiences. This temperamental combination of heart and head is an excellent feature for a war writer to have (the best example of this kind of writing isn’t a WWI memoir at all, but George Orwell’s later Spanish Civil War memoir, ‘Homage to Catalonia’). Graves also gives an important first-hand account of Sassoon’s war protest, vital for anyone studying WWI literature to know about.
Of two other memoirs I particularly recommend, the first is Siegfried Sassoon’s fictionalised ‘Memoirs of An Infantry Officer’. Sassoon’s testimony about the First World War is so interesting and central to First World War literary studies that you really must read this book, even if only through extracts. It’s not an easy book to read– but it certainly is rewarding. The second is Ernst Junger’s ‘Storm of Steel’. This book provides a much needed German perspective on the fighting, and has the pointed quality of a well whittled stake: Junger was something of a ‘happy warrior’, but is never sparing on the realities of combat. There are many other excellent memoirs, however: the opinions of this reviewer at World War One Battlefields can be trusted.
Finally, for the adventurous reader (or the foolhardy) I recommend David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’— or at least the first chapter of Jones’ book. This is a tough read for some, but the beginning is very accessible as an account of decamping from training ground to war. Jones’ account is also unlike those above, because it is the account of a private rather than an officer: reason enough to read him. Buy a photocopying card, go down the library, copy the first chapter and see what you make of it. You may push on with Jones to the end.
As a last recommendation, for brevity and precision in describing what life for the average Tommy was like, there is a short but excellent book published by Osprey books, ‘British Tommy 1914-18’. Watch out, though, this one’s expensive: buy it used, maybe. In fact, as with all the books mentioned here, seek them out second-hand first, at sites like AbeBooks.com, or down your local second hand bookstore. They’ll be cheaper, and you’ll be recycling. Save your money for the university fees.
That’s right! Today is the 23rd of February, 2011. An auspicious day. Yet, we must leave. Let us climb aboard our time machine.
We hop on board the rickety machine, you and I.
Night follows day like the flapping of a black wing as we speed to the morning of the 23rd of May, 2011, three months from now.
There, we climb off the machine. It is a typical early summer’s day in London. From a black sky drops hail the size of golf balls, smashing violently all around us: we run towards the nearest building, and find ourselves outside a curious hall.
There are a strange people here. They seem a little like you– but different somehow. They are thin, and seem to lack sleep. Some have their eyes closed as they mumble to themselves. Words? Numbers? It is hard to tell. One male, tall, seemingly energetic, laughs nervously as he looks from his papers to his watch.
You suddenly halt. At the entrance to the hall, a door opens. You grab my arm. There!– at the front of the queue!– who is that person that looks– so much like– you?
It is you.
This is the moment before you sit your AS level English paper, on May 23rd, 2011.
[Once you’ve linked to the page, you’ll see a tab called ‘Key Materials’ underneath the four handsome Aryans that AQA have chosen to advertise their qualifications. Click on this and go down to ‘Past Question Papers and Markschemes’. Then select one of the three exams that have been held so far. Good luck!]
“I adore war. It’s like a big picnic, without the objectivelessness of a picnic. I’ve never been so well or so happy.”
“The fighting excitement revitalises everything- every sight and word and action. One loves one’s fellow man so much more when one is bent on killing him.”
These are the thoughts of Julian Henry Francis Grenfell, son of the first Baron Desborough, and the man who penned Into Battle. It’s worth re-reading those lines once again– to check, if nothing else, that you read them correctly. Go on, look back over them. I’ll wait down here for you.
That’s right. Julian Grenfell loved war. Heenjoyed hunting human beings. It was, for him, like spending a happy day in the park. Fighting made life more vivid for Julian Grenfell.
I’ve spent years teaching Julian Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’– one of the most popular poems of the First World War– and it’s a poem that students at Southfields tend to like. I generally can’t conceal my pleasure when reading it, and perhaps that helps, but it’s a poem that always provokes discussion. Grenfell’s enthusiasm for war does not find a lot of sympathy amongst students today. He is called a number of names, ‘mad’ and ‘stupid’ among them. A recurring word that has popped up over the years to describe him has also been psychopath. His love of war has been discussed as being symptomatic of a diseased brain. And, indeed, why not?
Well, it’s not particularly useful to label writers. To explain away individual attitudes or artistic choices in terms of medical issues nearly always misrepresents the writer, and diminishes their work. Great artists are often weirdos: that’s why they see the world differently to the rest of us. Wiliam Blake may have had schizophrenia, Dostoevsky epilepsy and Van Gogh may have been bipolar. Ultimately their individual illnesses don’t matter that much, however: their works of art are more important than they are, frankly. We know next to nothing about Shakespeare, but his plays survive to inform us and give us pleasure. It doesn’t really matter what his sexual orientation or attitude to bear-baiting was. The plays (and the poems) are the thing.
By the same token, we’d want to look a little deeper into the life of Grenfell and the society in which he grew up before deciding that he was a psychopath. His attitude to killing other men seems, on a moral level, just as deviant to me as to the students I have taught—but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he was crazy, after all.
In this posting and the one following, we’re going to look at different ways of understanding Grenfell’s attitude to war. It will hopefully help you explore new ways of reading at A-level. If you’re studying, as we are at Southfields, the AQA Specification A AS level, we will be looking specifically at aspects of Assessment Objective 4 (AO4)— historical context. AO4 has proportionately less weighting when grading papers at AS level than the other AOs, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore it when we write about literature.
As a student of English understanding the historical background of a text is important. In terms of AS, if you’re incapable of showing your understanding of historical context, you’ll almost certainly falter when graded according to the other Assessment Objectives. For example: how can you meaningfully compare Journey’s End (1928), say, with Blackadder Goes Forth (1989), without referring to the fact that seven decades lie between their composition? Making linkages between texts is graded according to AO3, but it would be hard to score highly in this area if you didn’t know how attitudes had changed from the 1960s onward, leading to popular scepticism about the conduct of the war. Knowledge of historical context about the production of literature is crucial, even if we want to discount the importance of that history.
In this posting, however, we’re asking a simpler question: who was Julian Grenfell?
You can find a pithy biography on the Grenfell family’s website. Julian Grenfell was born in 1888 to a wealthy upper class family in Oxford. He was the son of William Grenfell, a celebrated athlete and ennobled ex-MP father; his mother, Ettie, was an intelligent and promiscuous socialite. Born into this world of high privilege, Grenfell was sent to Eton and later Oxford University. A charming but aggressive young man, he was both popular and a bully; he would attack aesthetes (fashionable dandies of the time dedicated to beauty and art) with his horse whip.
A contemporary said of him,
He rowed, he hunted; and he read, and he roared with laughter, and he cracked his whip in the quad all night; he bought greyhounds, boxed all the local champions; [wrote] poetry… and charmed everybody.
Except aesthetes, of course. He dabbled in poetry (read his ode to his greyhound, here) and wrote a number of essays that John Stallworthy judges were “an attack on the values of English society in general, and his mother’s social circle in particular”. Grenfell’s background may have been privileged, but his relationship with his mother in particular produced a sense of instability which some of Grenfell’s biographers have seen as recklessly propelling him towards war. Grenfell was something of an angry young man, then, and a frustrated rebel: though at least until the Great War, a rebel without a cause.
Depressed by the lack of interest in his writing, he joined the Royal Dragoons in 1910, and was sent to India: and when the First World War began he was posted immediately to Flanders, and fought in the First Battle of Ypres (it is possible to read online a 1917 eulogy to Julian Grenfell by Viola Meynell that, while unreliable, gives a decent flavour of his experience of the war). He was honoured for his bravery stalking snipers during that battle, and was offered a staff position away from the front lines, which he refused. In May 1915, however, he was hit in the head by shell fragments and died in a hospital in Boulogne. ‘Into Battle’ was published in The Times the very next day. It quickly became one of the most acclaimed poems of the war, and the legend of another soldier-poet was born.
To be fair, then, little in Grenfell’s biography suggests a psychopath. It seems Grenfell was forthright and charming, rude and arrogant; a sensitive young man whose manly mask hid a troubled personality. Not that unusual, really.
In the next posting, we will engage less with the man, and more with the matter of history, and the society that made Julian Grenfell.
[Note: for an excellent potted biography of Grenfell and 11 other First World War poets, Jon Stallworthy’s beautifully illustrated hardback Anthem For Doomed Youthis of unparalleled use for AS level students. The above quotes are from the short essay on Grenfell in this work.]
Brooke is not a fashionable poet, however. Let’s stop to think about why.
W.B. Yeats, perhaps the greatest of all Irish poets, once said something scandalous about Wilfred Owen. Yeats left Owen out of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse that he compiled in 1935, because he disliked what he saw as Owen’s mix of grim realism and sentimentality. Yeats declared that Owen was “all blood, dirt, and sucked sugar stick”. He also said that Owen’s poetry was poor because it described the “passive” suffering of soldiers. Owen was, in effect, in love with miserable agony. As disappointing as such an opinion is, it’s cheering, I think, to find that even geniuses are capable of the odd critical slip-up, here and there. Yeats, one of the greatest poets of the Twentieth Century, was also turned down for an academic post once because he misspelt the word ‘professor’ on his application.
Rupert Brooke made it into Yeats’ anthology, however. His poetry chimed with the older man, who even before the First World War had admitted the young poet into his circle of friends.
Today, it might seem baffling that Owen would get the boot, and Brooke find inclusion. Brooke can seem, by comparison with Owen, all sucked sugar stick– without even the blood and dirt.
The truth is, something happened, something fundamental changed about the Western world between 1914 and 1918. It didn’t leave Brooke’s world behind– his brand of intense patriotism and fellow-feeling was and remains popular. A century of well-reported technological mass warfare, however, has meant most people’s feelings about war and patriotism today are inevitably more guarded and ambivalent than the sentiments we find in Brooke’s emotive poetry. The sympathies of those living in the second half of the twentieth century have mostly been with Owen’s coughing and disabled soldiers, rather than Brooke’s dutiful and sainted dead.
Knowing this however, the worst thing to do would be dismiss Brooke and his work. This is a thing you have to be careful about as a reader and critic: sometimes you’ll miss what others love about a writer because of your own attitude or prejudices.
What is clear about Brooke is that he is part of a long, long tradition of poets who see war as the ultimate testing ground for young men. He is a poet who reflects many of the attitudes of his time– of his class, his nation, men in general– and who continues to speak for some today. His poems have fine heights (“If I should die…”) to match queasy lows (his talk of “sick hearts” and “half-men”). He remains well worth reading.
Looking online, there is a thoughtful short page on Rupert Brooke’s life and achievement at Harry Rusche’s Lost Poets website: the critical perspective on Brooke that you can find there from Charles Sorely is very interesting.
Another biographical sketch can be found here, looking at the ‘doomed’ life of Brooke and his method of composing his poems.
As we move along I’ll be posting some links to online resources on the poets that we study. Why? Well, the first rule about becoming an A-level student is: if you want to succeed, you better study independently. Read about your subject on your own time.
Get to know writers and what other people think of them. Believe it or not, your ideas about literature probably aren’t unique– someone will often have written similar opinions to your own about this or that writer or poem before. Don’t despair that you’re not a total original, though. The truth is, no-one is. Moreover, those people who beat you to publication are in fact your friends when you enter a literary debate; they’re on your side. Quote them!
Even better, there’ll be people whose ideas about literature are completely different from you. These are the really interesting articles to read. Some arguments will seem so unbelievably stupid to you that you’ll want to scream while you read, ‘you’re a moron!’. Others will seem odd or irrelevant or just plain wrong. But some of these arguments, even although you don’t agree with them, will stick with you, like a bit of grit in your shoe. You’ll find yourself thinking about them– either deciding just exactly why your original rejection was correct or, against your own will sometimes, seeing the other’s point of view.
The thing is that changing your mind about books or poems is a good thing. It shows mental flexibility. It means you’re learning, broadening your horizons.
So the first rule of becoming an A-level student is independent study. Here’s the second: ‘independent study’ does not mean ‘looking things up on Wikipedia’. Sure, Wikipedia is useful. It’s an amazing resource. Go have a look. Use it as your first port of call, if you like. But Wikipedia can be boring, badly written and wrong. It’s a collaborative encyclopedia– not always a place for interesting points of view. You’ve got to spend time finding the kind of critical voices that I’ve already talked about: this turns you from being a mere fact-checker to a literary student, involved in debates. So: no links to Wikipedia from here, I’m afraid!
Anyway. The first of the poets represented in our selection is Thomas Hardy– a writer better known today for his novels than the poetry he produced later on in his life. GCSE students, though, will probably be familiar with his war poem ‘The Man He Killed’; while A-level students might know novels like ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ better. As a much respected novelist and poet, his life and works are well represented on the net, and you can find some excellent stuff about him online. I’ll update as and when I find good sites or essays, but to start with, you might want to look here. Both these sites have compendious links to decent sources on Hardy: