In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores a modernist war poem by an overlooked writer
As it’s Refugee Week, my thoughts have turned to poetry about refugees – such as Auden’s ‘Refugee Blues’ and the lines from the Elizabethan play Sir Thomas More (which may have been penned by Shakespeare) about the plight of refugees in Tudor London. Modernist poetry, too, treated the plight of refugees during and after the First World War, and one of the first poets to do so was Ford Madox Ford, better known now as a novelist.
Ford was still known as Ford Madox Hueffer at the start of the First World War, but anti-German sentiment in Britain would see him ditch the Germanic surname, much as John Betjemann became Betjeman in an attempt to offset the overly Teutonic look of his name. His name is largely known nowadays because of his novels The Good Soldier (which sounds as though it’s about the war but isn’t) and Parade’s End (which is about the war and is actually four novels in one). But he also wrote much else besides, including collaborations with his friend Joseph Conrad (such as the science-fiction romance The Inheritors) and historical novels that prefigure Hilary Mantel in their impressionistic approach to capturing Tudor detail (see his The Fifth Queen (Vintage Classics) trilogy about the doomed young bride of Henry VIII, Catherine Howard). Ford also wrote poems, although these are not much read any more and are of variable quality. But at least one of his poems deserves to be dusted off and read because it’s one of the earliest modernist poems about the First World War. T. S. Eliot called it ‘the only good poem I have met with on the subject of the war’.
Ford Madox Ford’s ‘Antwerp’ (1915) is one of the first longer poems to respond to the war in a style or mode that can be described as ‘modernist’. The poem focuses on the Belgians’ resistance to German invasion in August 1914, when Germany demanded that Belgium allow the German army safe passage through the country. The Belgian government refused. The Germans invaded and the armies clashed, famously, at Mons later that month. In Antwerp, German troops besieged a garrison of Belgian forces as well as the Belgian field army and the British Royal Naval Division. Ford’s ‘Antwerp’ praises the heroism of the Belgians in refusing to capitulate to the Germans’ demands.
What sort of poem is ‘Antwerp’? As modernist poems go, it shows Ford experimenting, if not quite with free verse, then at least with something looser and less predictable than heroic couplets or the sonnets of Georgians such as Rupert Brooke. And the poem’s use of off-rhyme is sometimes misplaced: rhyming ‘anthem’ with ‘fan them’ and ‘Allah’s’ with ‘Valhallas’ seems more at home in a Byron poem than one about a contemporary war, although it might also call to mind the jocular rhymes of T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ – ices/crisis and so on. What’s more, its rhetoric is more at home in a work like ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ than, say, W. B. Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’. Yet as Pericles Lewis has observed, something of ‘Antwerp’ must have influenced Yeats in the writing of his poem:
But that clatter of sodden corses
On the sodden Belgian grass –
That is a strange new beauty.
The influence of these lines can be seen in Yeats’s ‘A terrible beauty is born’: this is a war like no other, although previous wars are our only frame of reference. And Ford’s parallels between the current war and previous wars – including the Punic Wars, also present in The Waste Land – and his poem’s use of mythology mark it as a curious precursor to Eliot’s poem. Section VI of ‘Antwerp’ depicts Belgian refugees in London, and serves to remind us that some 250,000 refugees fled the country and came to the capital in the wake of the invasion, the biggest number of refugees Britain has ever handled in one go:
A great crowd, all black that hardly whispers aloud.
Surely, that is a dead woman – a dead mother!
She has a dead face;
She is dressed all in black;
She wanders to the bookstall and back,
At the back of the crowd;
And back again and again back,
She sways and wanders.
The repetition and circling back which Ford’s lines capture would be something that would continue, not just as part of the aftermath of the invasion of Belgium but in the aftermath of the war as a whole. Such passages as these, later in the poem, offset the Belgian heroism Ford praises earlier in ‘Antwerp’: in the later sections, Ford is intent on highlighting the cost of war, even during the early stages of the conflict.
Shortly after he wrote ‘Antwerp’, Ford enlisted (at the not-so-young age of 41) into the Welch Regiment of the British Army. His experiences in France would feed into Parade’s End (1924-28), now his best-known work. But his poem ‘Antwerp’ shows that it was Ford Madox Ford the poet who was the first to respond to the events of this new, industrial war that would become known as the ‘First World War’. And he did so in a poem that seems caught between the heroic Georgian verse of Rupert Brooke and the tragic cry of despair that would be T. S. Eliot’s modernist masterpiece The Waste Land.
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Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
Image: German soldiers on outpost duty near Antwerp, sharing their food with Belgian orphans (Underwood & Underwood, 1915), via Wikimedia Commons.