Three big names from First World War literature feature this week after a trawl through the infosphere, looking for First World War literary tidbits. The BBC and the Guardian come up trumps again with features on two of the poets whose work is studied on the AQA AS English literature course, while a reminiscence of lost childhood provides us with an unexpected view of the life of Vera Brittain.

Edward Thomas.

Poems by Edward Thomas and Robert Frost can be found in Jon Stallworthy’s Oxford Book of War Poetry, and you can find notes for the poems on Move Him Into the Sun. Frost was an unregarded young poet and Thomas a prolific but frustrated critic when they met in 1913, beginning a friendship that would change the lives of both men. Frost received encouragement from a sympathetic Thomas, who gave Frost’s work supportive and perceptive reviews. Thomas, on the other hand, was coaxed by Frost to convert the poetic prose of Thomas’ writings on nature into an experiment in poetry. Each was a catalyst to the achievement of the other, and a Guardian article by Matthew Hollis, ‘Edward Thomas, Robert Frost and the Road to War’, brilliantly outlines the dynamic of the relationship between the two men. Hollis writes as the author of a new book on Thomas, Now All Roads Lead to France, which is this week serialised by BBC Radio 4 as their Book of the Week. You can listen to readings from the book here on iPlayer.

We can also thank the BBC for a radio documentary that allows us an insight into the life of Vera Brittain through the reminiscences of her daughter, Shirley Williams. Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’ is, of course, one of the great memoirs of life during World War One, recounting the experiences of an intelligent young woman who suffered appalling personal loss during the conflict. Baroness Shirley Williams— perhaps better known today than her mother, and a significant political figure in late twentieth century British politics– is a likeable and sympathetic narrator of her own childhood years in ‘The House I Grew Up In’, a documentary aired on Radio 4 this week. Her mother emerges as an incredibly principled woman– a pacifist, anti-fascist and feminist– if somewhat distant from her daughter: a woman for whom life was, it seems, never easy. This is a fascinating view of Brittain from the engaging Williams. Not to be missed.

Shirley Williams with her mother, Vera Brittain.

Advertisements
‘Range-Finding’

The battle rent a cobweb diamond-strung
And cut a flower beside a ground bird’s nest
Before it stained a single human breast.
The stricken flower bent double and so hung.
And still the bird revisited her young.
A butterfly its fall had dispossessed
A moment sought in air his flower of rest,
Then lightly stooped to it and fluttering clung.

On the bare upland pasture there had spread
O’ernight ‘twixt mullein stalks a wheel of thread
And straining cables wet with silver dew.
A sudden passing bullet shook it dry.
The indwelling spider ran to greet the fly,
But finding nothing, sullenly withdrew.

NOTES

This poem makes the flight of a bullet that will kill a man incidental to the effects it has upon the insects and small flowers on a battlefield.

STRUCTURE NOTE: This poem is a Petrarchan sonnet.

Robert Frost: Frost was a renowned American poet.

Range-Finding: A speculative shot intended to find out a gun’s accuracy over distance. Here though, also a metaphor for how speculating how far the effects of war are felt.

First Stanza / Octet: The poem lies in a tradition of poetry that uses animals to provide a perspective on human affairs, particularly human carelessness— the most obvious precursor here being Rab Burns’ ‘To a Mouse’ (in which a farmer bemoans destroying a field mouse’s nest while tilling the soil: he declares that “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft gley”). The Octet concentrates on how the bullet flies through a spider’s web, nearly bisects a flower that grows near a ground-bird’s nest, and upsets the actions of a butterfly.

“Before it stained a single human breast…”: The bullet will kill or maim a human at the end of its flight. This poem is not concerned with that terrible moment, but it remains in the background of the poem throughout. Instead the octet concentrates on a “stricken flower” and what occurs around it.

“…still the bird revisited her young.”: Nature and its creatures persist and continue to work, even during (man’s) war.

“A butterfly its fall had dispossessed…”: the focus here is on the delicate butterfly close-up, to the exclusion of all other things: hence the detail of the “fluttering” creature clinging to the stalk. The contrast between the fine beauty of a butterfly and the monstrous events that lie in the poem’s background is understated, but stark.

Second Stanza / Sextet: The perspective of the poem shifts here, as sonnets traditionally do. The ‘turn’, however, is not from nature to man, as might be expected, but to the spider first mentioned at the beginning.

“a wheel of thread / And straining cables wet with silver dew”: The beauty of the spider’s web is described through metaphors that accentuate technology and invention: the spider is, to this degree, humanized.

“The indwelling spider ran to greet the fly, / But finding nothing, sullenly withdrew”: The spider is fooled by the movement on its web to think that it has prey to feed on. There is a bitter irony here, for the mechanical action of the spider belies the truly inhuman actions occurring above and beyond, on the field of battle.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: The second of the poems to look at nature and human nature in an unconventional manner. Both poems are by Americans, whose country at this point had not entered the war (Frost however was in Britain at the start of the war). Perhaps this allowed the sense of objectivity and philosophical space that these two poems seem to work in.]