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’. Read the rest of this entry
A reading of a classic war poem
‘Everyone Sang’ is one of Siegfried Sassoon’s most popular and widely anthologised poems. The poem was published in 1919, the year following the end of the First World War, and the jubilant singing that features in the poem has been interpreted as a reference to the Armistice. You can read ‘Everyone Sang’ here.
A few words of summary first, then. ‘Everyone Sang’ is divided into two stanzas, each of five lines. The stanzas rhyme abcbb. The speaker of the poem hears everyone around suddenly burst into song, and the sound of singing fills him with delight. There’s a suggestion that this delight is related to a feeling of relief and, indeed, release: he likens it to the feeling a bird that had been caged must feel when it is freed and allowed to fly away. Read the rest of this entry
A critical reading of a classic poem
‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ is one of the best-loved and most widely-anthologised poems by Edward Thomas (1878-1917), who is viewed variously as a Georgian poet and as a poet of the First World War. Thomas wrote ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ in 1916, focusing on attitudes to the ongoing war expressed by people back home in England, rather than fighting at the front. Below is the poem, and some words of analysis.
As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war. Read the rest of this entry