Poetry of the Second World War: An International Anthology, edited and introduced by Desmond Graham, Vintage, 2011, 320pp., £12.99 (paperback)
When A Beau Goes In
When a Beau goes in,
Into the drink,
It makes you think,
Because, you see, they always sink
But nobody says “Poor lad”
Or goes about looking sad
Because, you see, it’s war,
It’s the unalterable law.
Although it’s perfectly certain
The pilot’s gone for a Burton
And the observer too
It’s nothing to do with you
And if they both should go
To a land where falls no rain nor hail nor driven snow —
Here, there, or anywhere,
Do you suppose they care?
You shouldn’t cry
Or say a prayer or sigh.
In the cold sea, in the dark
It isn’t a lark
But it isn’t Original Sin —
It’s just a Beau going in.
If assumptions are repeated often enough, they can become as hard as fact. This has been the case with English Literature and the two World Wars. In terms of the novel, it has been suggested the 1914-18 war belongs to the British and the 1939-45 war to the Americans. With poetry, attitudes are often even more clear-cut and implicate the form itself. British poets were all over the Great War; when the next one came along, they didn’t bother — or, if they did, the tone of their poetry was apparently sardonic and uninvolved: like that of the Gavin Ewart poem above.
In its own way, however, Ewart’s poem is as powerful as anything written during the Great War. Its tone, it could be argued, completes a circle begun by the likes of Owen and Sassoon. In ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’, Owen condemns the dissemination of ‘the old lie’ that sends so many to their deaths. Wryly, but with no less compassion, Ewart observes that the old lie is back, augmented by smarter technology.
The other old lie, or rather misassumption that the 1939-45 war did not speak to the poets of Britain, has by now been questioned by the appearance of numerous anthologies. Of these, two that repay close reading are Chaos of the Night, edited by Catherine Reilly, a selection of women’s poetry; and Poetry of the Second World War: An International Anthology, edited by Desmond Graham. As the latter demonstrates, the 1939-45 war engaged the poets of all the combatant nations, Britain very much included.
In his introduction, Graham points to a factor which could be said to unite these two anthologies. During 1939-45, he notes,
what was the centre and what was the edge could be quite unclear. Anna Akhmatova from Leningrad wrote in sympathy for Londoners during the 1940 Blitz. Within three years she had written of Leningrad’s suffering, while herself in Tashkent.
As his reference to the Blitz suggests, the relative positions of combatants and non-combatants was not as clear-cut as in 1914-18. Indeed, certain elements of that war prophesied that this would be so: Zeppelin raids, for example, and the advent of the U-boat. In Reilly’s anthology, war presses more deeply on civilian life than at any time in history. A common thread is that the speakers have internalised war. Fighters in mind if not in fact, they understand that the conflict is no longer far ‘over there’. In ‘Cunard Liner, 1940’, Phyllis Shand Allfrey skilfully undercuts the connotations of sophistication and safety in the name Cunard:
Now, for the last time, total solitude.
The ship hangs between explosion and quiet forward
The faces of the passengers are grave.
Audrey Beecham, meanwhile, combines something of Ewart’s sardonic tone with Audenesque jauntiness, transforming the view that ‘Britain can take it’ into a paean to quietly defiant necessity:
If these spires should once be mired
In rubble dust and water
We’d sail like ducks
Past all the clocks
And gaily shop by barter.
Sundered romance forms the subjects of many of the poems, often dealt with directly, often allusively. In ‘Evening in Camp’, Patricia Ledward, a nurse in an emergency hospital and also a driver for an anti-aircraft unit, articulates the anxieties and frustrations felt by separated couples, families and lone individuals:106
Peace has elusive qualities we do not understand,We do not turn our minds in that direction,Nor do we seek for joys not worth the seeking,But sometimes features shrivel with a lonely pain,Calling for help we cannot give.
Another spring of lilac-gathering may come, but this speaker, like so many in Reilly’s anthology, cannot accommodate such a vision. Like hope itself, it lies in a direction to which they — and the combatants on the front line — dare not turn.
Chaos of the Night is arranged alphabetically by surname, making it yet more engaging: not alerted by themed sub-headings, the reader is ambushed, so to speak, by scenes of country and city, silent reflections in momentarily still places and the awful struggles after a bombing-raid. Poetry of the Second World War: An International Anthology is sub-themed, with sections such as ‘By greatcoat, cartridge belt and helmet held together’ and (the final, ominous section), ‘War is no longer declared but continued’. This is, however, a necessary organising principle. Graham’s poets are combatants and non-combatants from all of the involved nations and familiar names are much in evidence: Brecht, Lewis, Mandelstam, Stevie Smith, Jarrell, Akhmatova and Pasternak. Inevitably, and with rich consequences for their poetry, the experiences of the poets, and of those for whom they speak, are as varied as those of the involved nations between 1939 and 1945. And there is another key principle of organisation, as Graham notes:
This anthology begins and ends chronologically. It starts with pre-war intimations sensed by Miklόs Radnόti in a mountain garden in Hungary in 1936; by Osip Mandelstam, in 1937, a year before his own death in Siberia, as he contemplates the misfortune of a birth date ‘eighteen-ninety something’; by Charles Resnikoff, also a Jewish poet, on the seemingly safe west coast of America . . .
As a result, the reader is able to see how many Second World Wars unfolded for different combatant countries: the preoccupations they created, the cultural assumptions they enforced or put to the test, the differing shapes of danger they let loose. The very fact that the war has variant names (for example, the Great Patriotic War, by which Russians mean the phases of war in the Eastern European theatre) adds credence to the notion, advanced in the 1995 BBC series The People’s Century, that there were as many Second World Wars as there were individuals experiencing them. Graham’s poets are fully alive to the protean nature of war, how it sharpens their own concerns and also unpredictably meshes their localities with the larger world. And, like their international peers in the anthology, the British poets strive (in Graham’s words) ‘to break silence, to give witness, to relieve memory, to lament, cry out and question’.
In Alun Lewis’s ‘All Day It Has Rained’, the speaker feels deeply, almost painfully, war’s other side, that which vivifies the reality of combat: the waiting (also expertly captured in, for example, Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy). At his camp on the edge of the moors,
…we talked of girls, and dropping bombs on Rome,
And thought of the quiet dead and the loud celebrities
Exhorting us to slaughter, and the herded refugees;
— Yet thought softly, morosely of them, and as indifferently
As of ourselves and those whom we
For years have loved and will again
Tomorrow maybe love …
Ewart’s sardonic tone is evident here, as are certain ghosts of the previous war: the ‘loud celebrities’ recall the target of Helen Hamilton’s ‘The Jingo-Woman’, while the placing of ‘maybe’ in the final line forges a link between this speaker’s musings and the words of his Great War predecessors. Over all the small talk looms huge uncertainty — stressed again in the poem’s final lines about the nearby pub, the Shoulder of Mutton, where ‘Edward Thomas brooded long / On death and beauty – till a bullet stopped his song’. Faced with that, the speaker and all of his companions cannot, in Patricia Ledward’s words, turn in the direction of love and hope. Their default mood has to be a self-numbing indifference.
E. J. Scovell’s lyric ‘Days Drawing In’ offers a variation on that response:
The days fail: night broods over afternoon:
And at my child’s first drink beyond the night
Her skin is silver in the early light.
Sweet the grey morning and the raiders gone.
The speaker cannot afford to be wholly indifferent: her child is before her, needing nourishment, care and as much love as the present situation will allow. A cautious happiness emerges but, as the speaker well knows, negatives define it: ‘fail’, ‘broods’, and ‘the night’. So it is that, as deliberately as Lewis’ speaker, she takes refuge in the moment, a ‘grey morning’ with ‘the raiders gone’: a time suspended between dread and fleeting relief.
In an excerpt from ‘The New Divan’, Edwin Morgan’s speaker likewise inhabits a moment, after — or perhaps even during — a desert battle (Morgan, a non-combatant conscientious objector, served with the Royal Army Medical Corps). The moment is a memory of stretcher-bearing a dead officer away,
rolling from side to side of the canvas
with a faint, terrible sound
as our feet stumbled through the sand.
War is there beside and around the stretcher-party: it lingers about the officer, supplying the ‘terrible sound’ of his dead weight; and the stumbling reaches back over twenty years to the ‘old beggars under sacks, / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags’, soon to find themselves in a world of poison in ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’.
Writing of literary developments in the 1920s and 1930s, Graham notes,
The broad history of what had happened in literature throughout Europe, and pretty well worldwide, meant that poetry itself proved fairly ready for the task of writing of war.
These two anthologies demonstrate — often troublingly, never less than absorbingly — that the poets of all combatant nations more than justified such comments. And, as the above examples show, British poetic voices did not withdraw into the isolated silence of casual assumption.
Michael W. Thomas’s latest novel is Pilgrims at the White Horizon. His poetry collections include Port Winston Mulberry (Littlejohn and Bray, 2009), Batman’s Hill, South Staffs (Flipped Eye, 2013) and Come to Pass (Oversteps, 2015). His work has appeared in The Antioch Review, Critical Survey, The London Magazine, Magazine Six (US), Stand Magazine and the TLS. In 2015, his novella, Esp, was shortlisted for the UK Novella Award. He is currently working on Nowherian, the fictionalised memoir of a Grenadian traveller. Twitter: @thomasmichaelw; blog, swansreport.blogspot.co.uk