In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle heads to Leicestershire in search of that county’s finest poet of the Great War
Arthur Newberry Choyce (1893-1937) is not a famous name, even among readers of WWI poetry. The Wikipedia page for his birthplace says nothing about him. His poetry is not widely known or read. Yet Choyce is perhaps Charnwood’s great forgotten poet of the First World War – maybe, even, Leicestershire’s greatest poet of WWI.
Choyce was born in Hugglescote, a small village near Coalville and located some ten miles to the west of Loughborough, in 1893, the same year as Wilfred Owen. As a young man he joined the Leicestershire Regiment (known as ‘The Tigers’), and became a Second Lieutenant in the 9th Battalion. At the outbreak of war, the regiment appointed Choyce their official war poet. In 1917, he published the first of several volumes of poetry, Crimson Stains, which carried the subtitle Poems of War and Love.
Crimson Stains shuttles between life in the trenches and the world back home for which Choyce was fighting. Several of the poems mention Charnwood; one of them, ‘The Hills’, was even written there, presumably while Choyce was home on leave:
On the hills, purple and far-spreading
I follow lights that ever lead me on
To where the heather lures me to a bedding,
With night thick-coming, daylight drooping – gone.
The bliss! to lie and slumber with the cover
Of forest shadows lurking low and deep.
To dream of love, of loving, and of lover;
And waste a wealth of sighs in trancéd sleep.
And when the morn with singing lark is rising
To paint her skies with yellow-orange glow:
I wake to life, and languid love despising
Across the alluring tinted hills I go.
And ever stray with hope of one day stealing
A dream-peace where the music of the rills
Infuses in my joys the gladdened feeling
That Nature worship gives upon the hills.
Is that penultimate stanza influenced by Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’? Shakespeare has ‘lark’, ‘arising’, ‘despising’, ‘heaven’, ‘break of day’, ‘love’, ‘sings’; Choyce has ‘lark’, ‘rising’, ‘despising’, ‘skies’, ‘morn’, ‘love’, and ‘singing’. This may be textual coincidence – but Choyce’s poems have a lyrical quality, especially when writing about the English midland countryside, which shows the influence of Shakespeare and the Romantics. There is not much of the grit we get from Wilfred Owen (himself inspired by the Romantics; although Owen’s experiences in the War would serve to de-romanticise his view of war and, indeed, humanity).
How Choyce himself felt about the war is difficult to gauge: the poems convey the horror of life – and, indeed, death – in the trenches, but it is hard to infer from the poetry just how opposed to, or in favour of, the cause behind the war Choyce was. When Edward Thomas was asked what he was fighting for, he famously stooped to pick up a handful of English soil. ‘Literally for this.’ Whether Choyce had similar patriotic – and perhaps even regionally patriotic – reasons for fighting, it would be interesting to know, but little is, alas, known of his life.
‘To the Leicestershires’, a short poem comprising a single quatrain, carries the note ‘Fallen May 3rd, 1917’:
If in the next life or the next there be
A starting of our quarrels all again,
May Fate give task of leadership to me
And let me find the souls of these dead men.
Choyce’s life after the war was successful, in one sense. He embarked on a tour of the United States, lecturing to huge audiences around the country. He even composed the epitaph sent by the mothers of the British Empire to America’s unknown warrior. But his life was not to be a long one, and he died, aged just 43, in 1937. It appears that wounds he received during the war may have contributed to his early death.
After Crimson Stains he wrote several further volumes of poems, some of which also reflect Choyce’s life in the trenches, with others being written in his home environment of Charnwood Forest. If you’re looking for the war poet who spoke for, and from, the midlands during WWI, look no further than Choyce. Choyce was Charnwood’s war poet.
This post originally appeared on the Charnwood Poetry Archive in 2014.
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