In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads the work of a forgotten war poet
The poetry of Wilfred Owen is the most widely-studied writing about the First World War, written by a man who experienced the fighting first-hand. Poets like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound – who, unlike Owen, were part of modernism as well as being modern – didn’t experience the horrors of the trenches themselves, although they both wrote about the war afterwards. Eliot’s The Waste Land is full of war imagery, while Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley contains one of the most brilliantly angry and impassioned diatribes about the war’s sheer waste of life to be found anywhere in modern literature.
Owen is loosely associated with the Georgians, a group of poets writing in the years immediately preceding the outbreak of war, whose most famous member was probably Rupert Brooke, another soldier-poet who lost his life in the war. It’s easy to divide ‘war poets’ up into modernists like Eliot and Pound, who were exempted from active service, and ‘merely’ modern poets like Owen, who fought in the war and wrote about their own experiences. But such a division between modernist civilians and ‘Georgian’ combatants overlooks those war poets who did see trench warfare and who were also associated with the modernist movement: Richard Aldington, F. S. Flint, and T. E. Hulme, to name just three. Hulme’s wonderfully documentary-style poem ‘Trenches: St Eloi’, which I’ve discussed here, captures the mundane realities of trench-life during the First World War, while also conveying something of the mental effects of the war on the average soldier.
There were also war poets who fell somewhere between Owen and Hulme, such as the relatively unknown Frederick Victor Branford (1892-1941), sometimes known as F. V. Branford, who was badly wounded at the Battle of the Somme, after being shot down over the Belgian coast (he managed to swim ashore to the Netherlands). Branford wrote in a style that tempered anger and despair with a stoic British restraint, such as in his five-line poem ‘Flanders’:
Two broken trees possess the plain,
Two broken trees remain.
Miracles in steel and stone
That might astound the sun, are gone.
Two broken trees remain.
This poem first appeared in Voices, a short-lived literary magazine set up at the end of the First World War with the express intention of providing a publishing outlet for demobbed soldiers returning from the Western Front. It’s a brilliantly tight-lipped response to the destruction of the theatre of war, with anger threatening to flare out in the harsh repeated sounds of ‘steel’, ‘stone’, and ‘astound’; yet the repetition of the second line as the poem’s final line more quietly suggests an inability to imagine the rejuvenation of this ‘waste land’. How can one rebuild the world one has lost from two broken trees?
‘Flanders’ was published in Branford’s collection Titans and Gods, which came out in 1922, the same year as Eliot’s The Waste Land. Some of Branford’s other poems in this volume approach the imagistic precision of the modernist poets F. S. Flint and Richard Aldington (who was born the same year as Branford), such as the atmospheric ‘Night at Scheveningen’:
The North Sea shakes
His ranks in
Beats and breaks
His flanks in
On rock and century.
My soul is as the sea.
After Titans and Gods, another collection, The White Stallion, followed in 1925, which attracted the attention (though not exactly approval) of D. H. Lawrence. After this, Branford’s poetic career appears to have come to an end. He died in 1941, having not even reached his fiftieth birthday, and little else is widely known about him.
Many modernist periodicals and magazines which flourished in the years immediately following the war – many of them short-lived and, in some cases, running to only a few issues – allow us to observe the shift from traditional to more experimental verse at a time when the old certainties about life, art, and the world more generally were ripe for reappraisal. The Sitwells’ journal Wheels, named after a poem by the socialite and modernist poet Nancy Cunard, ran to just six issues or ‘cycles’, published annually between 1916 and 1921. In 1919, a number of Wilfred Owen’s poems, including ‘Strange Meeting’, were posthumously published in the ‘fourth cycle’ of the magazine, so that Owen’s war poetry appeared alongside the more modernist experiments of the Sitwells and Sherard Vines, among others, blurring the line between ‘Georgian’ and ‘modernist’ and highlighting Owen’s innovative use of pararhyme in his verse. And F. V. Branford is a poet who shows these two traditions or movements being fused together to create something imagistic and precise while retaining one eye on the literary traditions of the past.
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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: via Wikimedia Commons.