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 summary of a classic war poem
‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ is by one of the First World War’s leading war poets, Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918). The poem might be analysed as war poetry’s answer to John Donne’s ‘The Flea’ – because the rat which is so friendly towards the English poet will also cross No Man’s Land and make friends with the German enemy. The rat, that ubiquitous feature of WWI imagery, here acts as a reminder of the English and Germans’ common humanity, even in times of war.
Break of Day in the Trenches
The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies. Read the rest of this entry