Of all the poets who served in World War Two, Roy Fuller perhaps best recorded in verse the breadth of the struggles and sacrifices endured by civilians and the lost opportunities and personal toll the war inflicted on the men serving in the armed services. For Fuller the label war poet applies to what is a minor, though important, aspect of his oeuvre as a writer.
Another poet of the war, Donald Bain, said the poet could see only “the small components of the scene.” Though Fuller himself said he could “only scribble on the margin,” his poetry encompassed a wide array of wartime experiences and challenges.
Fuller was conscripted into the Royal Navy in April 1941 as an Ordinary Seaman and rose to Petty Officer. Assigned to the Fleet Air Arm he underwent naval training specializing in radar technology. His year of training in England allowed him time to write poetry on themes relating to his wartime service, loneliness and separation from his family—Fuller was 29 when drafted and had a wife and young son—and the conflicted relationships with his fellow recruits.
He was posted to Kenya (British East Africa) in April 1942 after enduring an arduous sea voyage documented in verse and later in his memoirs. This period gave him new material to write about but also new anxieties caused by his isolation. And he had misgivings about his role in the war far from the frontiers of the fighting. Like Henry Reed, he saw no combat. He remained in Africa until late July 1943.
Upon his return home after another laborious sea journey, which his biographer, Neil Powell, quotes him as telling his friend Julian Symons, was “devised by the Admiralty in association with Kafka,” Fuller was given a commission and promoted to Sub-Commander. Now an officer, he applied for a position in the Admiralty and in July 1944 was assigned to the Directorate of Naval Air Equipment and subsequently the Directorate of Naval Air Radio. Soon after his transfer he met Alan Ross, who became a life-long friend and promoter of his writings as publisher of The London Magazine founded by John Lehmann.
Fuller was back in London during the V-1 and V-2 buzz bombing and rocket attacks, which became the source of some of his later verse. His poetry with the end of the war near probed the changing attitudes, including his own, of the lasting consequences of the conflict on British values as he tried to find meaning and hope in the postwar peace. Fuller left the Navy in December 1945 and rejoined the building society that had employed him as a solicitor before the war.
Publishing his first collection of verse (Poems) in December 1939 he could claim to be a Thirties poet. Initially a committed Marxist, Fuller’s early poems such as “August 1939” and “New Year” reflected the influence of Auden and Stephen Spender.
Fuller wrote his first war poetry while still a civilian during the dark days of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. These poems and those written after his call-up and during naval training are contained in The Middle of a War (1942).
Themes of separation from family, the trials of having to adjust to the life of a recruit, and survival in wartime among the ruins of London are uppermost: “Charing Cross: where trains depart for the bombardment/And the leave-taking is particularly ardent…./I wipe my fingers on the hurrying faces,/And implant the wish to be in different places.…/The edges of the country are fraying with/Too much use; the ports are visited by wrath/In the shapes of the metal diver and the dart/With screaming feathers and explosive heart.” (“August 1940”) And “No longer can guns be cancelled by love,/Or by rich paintings in the galleries;/The music in the icy air cannot live,/The autumn has blown away the rose./Can we be sorry that these explosions/Which occurring in Spain and China reached us as/The outer ring of yearning emotions,/Are here as ruble and fear, as metal and glass,/Are here in the streets, in the sewers full of people?/We see as inevitable and with relief/The smoke from shells like plump ghosts on the purple,/The bombers, black insect eggs, on the sky’s broad leaf.…/Death is solitary and creeps along the Thames…” Fuller remained optimistic about the outcome: “But where the many are there is no death,/Only a temporary expedient of sorrow/And destruction; today the caught up breath—/The exhalation is promised for tomorrow./And changed tomorrow is promised precisely by/The measure of the engendered hate, the hurt/Descended; the instinct and capacity/Of man for happiness, and that drowned art.” (“October 1940”)
In “Soliloquy in an Air Raid,” Fuller’s optimism is tempered, with the Blitz serving as backdrop for his concern over the impact of the brutality and destructiveness of war: ”Our dying is effected in the streets,/London an epicentrum…/Ordered this year:/A billion tons of broken glass and rubble,/Blockade of chaos, the other requisites/For the reduction of Europe to a rubble./Who can observe this save as a frightened child/Or careful diarist? And who can speak/And still retain the tones of civilization?”
In “Royal Naval Air Station” Fuller reflects on his inability coming from a privileged middle-class background to fully sympathize with some of his less-privileged mates. There is also the fear of death that every serviceman faced: “A ghost has made uneasy every bed,/You are not you without me and The dead/Only are pleased to be alone, it said./And hearing it silently the living cry/To be again themselves, or sleeping try/To dream it is impossible to die.”
In his part humorous, part serious poem, “ABC of a Naval Trainee,” the boredom and discomforts of military life are assessed: “A is the anger we hide with some danger,/Keeping it down like the thirteenth beer./B is the boredom we feel in the bedlam./C is the cautious and supervised cheer…./G is the gun which can kill at, say Greenwich/If fired at St. Martin’s, and H is our hate/Non-existent behind it wherever we wind it./I is the image of common man’s fate…./S is the silence for brooding on violence./T is the toughness imparted to all…./W is war to start off the quarries—/Our everyday hunger and every night thirst….”
Fuller was dismissive of overt patriotism and war propaganda, which he mocked in “Spring 1942”: “The chaplain came against the sky/And quickly took a vacant chair./And under the tobacco smoke:/‘Freedom,’ he said, and ‘Good’ and ‘Duty.’/We stared as though a savage spoke./The scene took on a singular beauty./And we made no reply to that/Obscure, remote communication…” And in “Another War” and “Defending the Harbour,” the war is so distant, the boredom so deep that any sense of military urgency is lost.
Much of Fuller’s verse expressed concern not over his own death but for the safety and health of his family. “Our kisses here as they have always been,/Half sensual, half sacred, bringing like/A scent our years together,/crowds of ghosts./And then among the thousand thoughts of parting/The kisses grow perfunctory; the years/Are waved away by your retreating arm.” (“Good-bye for a Long Time”)
“To My Wife” is in part a tender love poem of parting where Fuller’s existence is “…so different with you not here./This evening when I turned from the clothes you left,/Empty and silk, the souls of swallows flickered/Against the glass of our house…/Now in the bubble of London whose glass will soon/Smear into death, at the still-calm hour of four,/I see the shadows of our life, the Fates/We narrowly missed, our still possible destiny./I try to say that love is more solid than/Our bodies, but I only want you here./I know they created love and that the rest/Is ghosts; war murders love—I really say./But dare I write it to you who have said it/Always and have no consolations from the ghosts?”
Powell notes that Fuller was shaken by the bloodthirsty patriotism he encountered on the voyage to Kenya and was “continually alert to the way in which good causes are wrecked by simplistic jingoism.” He was equally dismayed by the racial segregation in Africa.
Lehmann was so struck by Fuller’s sonnet “The Middle of a War” that he suggested it as the title poem for the collection. It was written just weeks before his posting to Africa and expresses a kind of ironic obituary, summing up his entire military service to that point:
My photograph already looks historic.
The promising youthful face, the matelot’s collar,
Say ‘This one is remembered for a lyric.
His place and period—nothing could be duller.’
Its position is already indicated—
The son or brother in the album; pained
The expression and the garments dated,
His fate so obviously preordained.
The original turns away: as horrible thoughts,
Loud fluttering aircraft slope above his head
At dusk. The ridiculous empires break like biscuits.
Ah, life has been abandoned by the boats—
Only the trodden island and the dead
Remain, and the once inestimable caskets.
Fuller’s poems from his posting to Kenya and on his return to England are contained in A Lost Season (1944). In what is probably his most anthologized poem from the war period, “What is Terrible,” Fuller tries to come to grips with what the war has meant to him, including his limited role in it, and the tenuousness of private values in wartime. What is terrible is a mechanized world ready and able to destroy itself. “Life at last I know is terrible:/The innocent scene, the innocent walls and light/And hills for me are like the cavities/Of surgery or dreams….I/Must first be moved across two oceans, then/Bored, systematically and sickeningly,/In a place where war is news. And constantly/I must be threatened with what is certainly worse:/Peril and death, but no less boring. And/What else? Besides my fear, my misspent time,/My love, hurt and postponed, there is the hand/Moving the empty glove…/To blame our fathers, to attribute vengeance/To the pursuing chorus, and to live/In a good and tenuous world of private values,/Is simply to lie when only truth can give/Continuation in time to bread and love.”
This was Fuller’s exploration of a universal statement: War is disastrous for everyone; hope for a better future tenuous. “For what is terrible is the obvious/Organization of life: the oiled black gun,/And what it cost, the destruction of Europe by/Its councils; the unending justification/Of that which cannot be justified, what is done./The year, the month, the day, the minute, at war/Is terrible and my participation/And that of all the world is terrible./My living now must bear the laceration/Of the herd, and always will. What’s done/To me is done to many….”
“In a place where war is news”: Isolated from the war, Fuller has the nagging feeling that he is a non-factor in the war effort. Robert Hewison in Under Siege – Literary Life in London 1939-45 states that Fuller probably faced greater danger in London during the Blitz than he ever did during his military service, though two ships in his convoy to Africa were blown up. This sense of guilt or at least unease in not contributing to the fighting against the Axis paradoxically may explain his rather critical reaction to the poetry of Keith Douglas, which it would seem Fuller felt was all blood and guts and without sympathy for the plight of civilians at home or of other ranks in the army. Fuller’s poem “Epitaphs for Soldiers,” written at the end of the war, applies more to Douglas’s war experience: “Incredibly I lasted out the war,/Survived the unnatural, enormous danger/Of each enormous day….”
Also in a political vane is “Winter in England,” reminiscent of his Thirties Audenesque verse, particularly the line, “Now man must be political or die,” echoing Auden’s “We must love one another or die.” (“September 1, 1939”) The poem laments the inadequacy of words in confronting the enormity of the 1939-45 disaster.
Like fellow poets Alun Lewis and Alan Ross, Fuller saw the irony of Britain fighting a war for freedom from colonial bases and territories still part of the British Empire. For Fuller the discomfort was personal and directly observed, what he felt was the destructive effect of British capitalism on local African tribes: “The girls run up the slope,/Their oiled and shaven heads like caramels./Behind, the village, with its corrugated/Iron, the wicked habit, of the store…./Soon they will only dance for money, will/Discover more and more things can be sold./What gods did you expect to find here, with/What healing powers?” (“The Green Hills of Africa”)
In “The Tribes” the Westerner has brought individualism which clashes with the tribes’ communal existence. “In Africa” describes a place being ruined by those newly occupying the land. Conversely, the Westerner can never be happy here. In “The Photographs” the different cultures are inexorably divided by “two seas and a war.” And in “The White Conscript and the Black Conscript” Fuller acknowledges the barrier raised by colonialism: “I do not understand/Your language, nor you mine./If we communicate/It is hardly the word that matters or the sign,/But what I can divine.”
In other African poems: “The Giraffes,” “Plains” and “Askari’s Son,” Fuller is in awe of the remarkable fauna and flora of the natural world and vast expanse of the East African landscape. But this land is the home of hyenas, jackals and vultures as well as the magnificent lion. Their victims have their “replicas/Embedded in our memories and in/Our history.”
Feelings of separation continue to fill his poems back in England. In “The Petty Officers’ Mess” Fuller knows “…(The cheap song says it on the radio)/That nerves and skin first suffer when we part,/The deep insensitive tissues of the heart/Later, when time is slow./And time has done his part and stands and looks/With dumb exasperated face.”
Epitaphs and Occasions (1949) contains several poems written at the end of the war. His war poems also comprise the early sections of Collected Poems 1936-1961 (1962).
Roy Broadbent Fuller was born in Failsworth, Lancashire. After his father died, the family—Roy, his mother and brother—moved to Blackpool where he attended high school. Though he did not attend college, Fuller taught himself the law and became a solicitor, joining the Woolwich Equitable Building Society in 1938. Rejoining the firm after the war, it became one side of a life-long duel career as lawyer and writer. He also held the chair of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University for five years beginning in 1968, succeeding Edmund Blunden; was appointed a member of the BBC Board of Governors (1972-79), and was chairman of the Arts Council’s Literature Committee (1976-77). In 1970 he was awarded the CBE and that same year was given the prestigious Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. He received the Cholmondeley Award from the Society of Authors in 1980.
Roy Fuller believed he was a poet who never quite caught on. Though this may have been accurate of his early poetry, his belief would be proved wrong in the decades that followed. He became a well-respected and prolific writer of both poetry and fiction almost until his death. Besides his war verse, Fuller published some 41 collections of poetry and four collections of verse plus two stories for children, seven novels, four crime mysteries, several memoirs and countless magazine reviews and essays.
Summing up his literary achievements, the literary historian of the ’30s and ’40s A.T. Tolley wrote in a tribute that Fuller’s poetry “…has a perhaps unequalled significance as a record of what it was to be British through the many changes that Fuller experienced: the depression; the war; the gradual sense of the declining centrality of British culture in the years following the war; and the deep sense of the richness and importance of domestic life that emerges in his later work.”
Michael D. Wormser, March 2017
Besides Fuller’s war poetry collections cited in the text, the following works were consulted:
Ronald Blythe, ed., Components of the Scene – An anthology of the prose and poetry of the Second World War.
Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1966.
Robert Hewison, Under Siege – Literary Life in London 1939-45. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Neil Powell, Roy Fuller Writer and Society. Manchester, England: Carcanet Press Ltd., 1995.
William Scammell, Keith Douglas – A Study. London: Faber & Faber Ltd., 1988.
Vernon Scannell, Not Without Glory – Poets of the Second World War. London: The Woburn Press, 1976.
Andrew Sinclair, War Like a Wasp – The Lost Decade of the ‘Forties. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1989.
Steven E. Smith, Roy Fuller: A Bibliography. Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1996.
A.T. Tolley, ed., Roy Fuller – A Tribute. Ottawa, Canada: Carleton University Press, 1993.
For many readers of World War II poetry, Henry Reed is known for a single poem, “Naming of Parts.” He is not alone with that perception. Several other poets of the war are associated today with a single poem, including F.T. Prince, Alan Ross and Alan Rook in the UK and Randall Jarrell and Richard Eberhart in the United States. What is ironic in Reed’s case is that he served in the British army for only a few months and never saw combat, yet wrote what is probably the most anthologised poem of the war.
Jon Stallworthy, Reed’s biographer and editor of his Collected Poems (1991), reminds us that Reed was an accomplished writer of poetry and prose before the war and wrote numerous poems in the 1940s that were not war related. “Naming of Parts” was no accident. His poetic skill and imagination were obvious in his early “The Desert” and “Hiding Beneath the Furze” and in “Bocca di Magra,” with the stone “from the bluffs of Carrara gashed by the great into greatness.”
Henry Reed was born in Birmingham and attended secondary school in Aston where his interests centered on the classics. Greek was not taught at his high school so he learned it on his own. He won a prize in Latin and earned a scholarship to Birmingham University, gaining a first honor in 1934. W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, a classics lecturer at Birmingham, were major influences. Reed subsequently earned an MA degree for a thesis on Thomas Hardy.
In the late Thirties Reed taught school and was a freelance writer and literary critic. He was able to travel in Italy before the war and fell in love with the country.
Conscripted into the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in the summer of 1941, Reed underwent basic training but never left England. His brief introduction to army life nevertheless provided the inspiration for “Naming of Parts,” one of just three war poems he wrote in the Forties. Following a serious illness, Reed was transferred to the Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park. Fluent in Italian, he initially was assigned to breaking Italian codes. After Italy was knocked out of the war, Reed learned Japanese and transferred to the Japanese section. He was demobilized soon after VJ Day.
His poetry collection A Map of Verona (1946) includes the three war poems grouped under Lessons of the War. The first section includes the title poem about the “small strange city of Verona,” Reed’s favorite, and his beloved Italy—which he was to visit often after the war. Others poems written in the late Thirties and Forties explore the wonders of Mediterranean travel, Greek mythology and the humorous “Chard Whitlow” (1941), a parody of T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” from Four Quartets.
Besides “Naming of Parts,” Lessons of the War includes “Judging Distances” and “Unarmed Combat.” The latter two, though skillfully composed with the verse implying the army recruit’s gradual acceptance of or resignation to military life, lack the authenticity and spontaneity of “Naming of Part.” All three dramatize the uprootedness, loneliness and boredom faced by the reluctant civilian draftee. Reed called his training, or “blitztraining,” savage. Any recruit could readily identify with Reed’s disoriented inductee.
Reed endured endless drilling and instruction in the use of weapons including the standard-issue rifle. Discussing the origin of “Naming of Parts” in an interview with Vernon Scannell, author of Not Without Glory – Poets of the Second World War, Reed recalled how he would entertain his friends by giving a comic imitation of a drill sergeant, and after doing so a few times noticed that the language used by the instructors— right out of the army manual—fell into certain rhythmic patterns that formed the foundation for his famous poem. Scannell observed that Reed’s “cunningly placed rhythmic pauses, the edgy, short-sense units in the earlier lines of each stanza echo the mechanical rhetoric” of the instructor and without interruption “modulate into the more flowing, lyrical passage that follows.”
There are two voices, the NCO’s and the recruit’s. As the poem unfolds, the difference in idiom between the two voices gradually disappears, though each retains its own response: the discipline and regimentation of army life, and the sensitivity of the citizen soldier. And there are obvious sexual connotations throughout the text. Here is the complete poem, written in 1942:
Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all the neighboring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.
This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.
This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.
And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.
After publication of A Map of Verona, Reed turned to radio and began a distinguished writing career as a dramatist for the BBC. His remarkable speaking voice, wit and gift for mimicry were perfect for radio. One of his first radio plays was a dramatization of Moby Dick. His wit is reflected in the immensely popular series “The Private Life of Hilda Tablet”(1954). Reed was often confused with the poet and critic Herbert Read, so much so that in one of his radio dramas he names his alter ego biographer Herbert Reeve, whose name in the play is slightly misspoken by everyone. Hilda Tablet, a 12-tone composer of music, makes her first appearance in this broadcast.
In 1960 Reed turned Lessons of the War into a radio script, “The Complete Lessons of the War,” which included the three poems in A Map of Verona plus two later war poems: “Movement of Bodies” and “Returning of Issue.” They were published in a separate limited edition in 1970. Stallworthy’s 1991Collected Poems includes many previously unpublished poems.
Reed also was a translator of the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, of Balzac and others.
Michael D. Wormser, May 2016
Henry Reed, A Map of Verona. London: Jonathan Cape, .
Henry Reed, Lessons of the War. New York: Chilmark Press, 1970.
Robert Hewison, Under Siege – Literary Life in London 1939-45. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Kenneth A. Lohf, Poets in a War – British Writers on the Battlefronts and the Home Front of the Second World War. New York: The Grolier Club, 1995.
Edna Longley, ed., The Bloodaxe Book of 20th Century Poetry. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books Ltd., 2007.
Vernon Scannell, Not Without Glory – Poets of the Second World War. London: The Woburn Press, 1976.
Jon Stallworthy, ed., Henry Reed – Collected Poems. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Jon Stallworthy, A Life of Henry Reed. London Review of Books. Vol. 13, No. 17, 12 Sept. 1991.
Jon Stallworthy, Survivors’ Songs – From Maldon to the Somme. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Hôtel de l’Univers, Arras
Writer and Daily Mail columnist Bel Mooney participated once more in the WPA’s Poetry Battlefields Tour to the Western Front last month, October 2018, one of a series of tours organised by the War Poets Association and Eyewitness Tours Ltd to mark the centenary of the First World War. This final tour of the series, The World’s Worst Wound, took place 27-30 October. An account of it by Bel Mooney appeared in her column in the Daily Mail on Saturday 10 November 2018, during the remembrance weekend that marked the signing of the Armistice which brought the First World War to an end. This latest tour was attended by a record total of 51 participants.
Tour Leader Andy Thompson
Professor Fran Brearton
Bel Mooney’s account of this latest tour illustrates what it is like to attend one of the WPA and EWT’s poetry battlefields tours, which typically draw participants from many ages and backgrounds. The version of this account published in the Daily Mail can be accessed online here. (Scroll down the page if necessary to the second item in Bel’s column, headed My pilgrimage brought home the true power of empathy.)
Bel Mooney has also provided a copy of the full article directly to the WPA and this is published here, below.The views expressed in the article are those of its author Bel Mooney, and not necessarily also those of the WPA. Some photographs of the tour taken by another participant, Andy Rose, will be added here in due course.
Pilgrimage of Remembrance
A PILGRIMAGE OF REMEMBRANCE
At Tyne Cot Cemetery, near Ypres, a pretty, rosy-cheeked Commonwealth War Graves Commission intern sits shivering in a bitter wind on the steps of the great Cross of Sacrifice. Chania is 22, a recent graduate from Exeter University. Like many other young volunteers in this special centenary year, she has chosen to spend four months in the wind and rain of Flanders, simply to answer any questions from visitors to the 11,965 (8,369 unnamed) graves in this, the biggest Commonwealth cemetery in the world.
Chania tells me how privately she and all her friends were furious about the recent Cambridge student union decision not to honour Remembrance Sunday — ‘I know people still at Cambridge uni who say those people do not represent them.’ Then, in a ringing voice she tells our group, ‘I am the age of many of those who fought and are buried here. There is a connection between the youth of today and these men – and always will be. All of us have once been the age these men were when they gave their lives.’
How I wish those callow Cambridge students – and, in fact, all those who say that wearing the scarlet poppy of remembrance ‘glorifies war’ – would walk with me and my friends among the pale headstones that stand like soldiers on parade. They could not then so readily insult the memory of the dead. This was the fourth, deeply moving, pilgrimage my husband and I have made to the battlefields – once again joining a special study tour organised by the War Poets Association, led by battlefield historian Andy Thompson. Once more, the experience is overwhelming. We learn history, listen to poetry aloud, and share camaraderie and tears. But why travel to stand in that bleak cold landscape of Flanders in order to remember?
The first answer comes when, quite by accident, I come across a row of four headstones to unknown soldiers from the Lancashire Fusiliers. In all, 250,000 men perished most horribly defending an significant little town in Flanders called Ypres. ‘I died in hell; they called it Passchendaele’ wrote the poet Siegfried Sassoon. And my beloved grandfather, William Mooney was there, a teenage private from Liverpool who had already survived the 1916 carnage of the Somme.
Now, at Tyne Cot, I gaze at the anonymous graves of men from his regiment. Were they Grandad’s mates? I picture him lighting a Woodbine with them, see them sitting in a squalid trench writing to their sweethearts, hear in my heart their soldiers’ banter and despair. Those imaginings are a sudden body-blow. The four Fusiliers may have no names, yet now my tears fall for them. My grandfather survived the carnage (and was later wounded at Dunkirk) yet lived to hold both my children. These men – as beloved by their families, I hope – had all their promise, all their hopes consigned to the shattered earth, with no identity. Blinded, I bow my head. And so grief becomes universal.
All around the rows of graves are marble panels bearing 34,887 names of men from the United Kingdom and New Zealand Forces with no known grave at all – nearly all of whom died between August 1917 and November 1918. What sense can we make of such numbers? When you visit the battlefields of Flanders that question quickly numbs your brain – as it utterly devastates the heart.
We were on our trip to France and Belgium when the Chancellor was reading his recent Budget. It’s astonishing how quickly the ins-and-outs of contemporary politics recede when you are surrounded by the evidence of so much horror. Was that war futile? Did they die for nothing – as some argue? Such debates fade when you walk in solemn disbelief among the headstones. That is why I rejoiced to hear that Philip Hammond will hand out £1 million to pay for battlefield visits for school pupils. A further £1.7 million will be provided for educational projects in schools to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. This is both imaginative and morally right.
Misguided people argue that First Wold War remembrance is overdone – and we should mark and mourn ALL wars and ALL genocides. But – as ignorant of history as of symbolism – they miss the point. To remember the dead of the First World War doesn’t mean you ignore the losses of the Second. To make a pilgrimage to Auschwitz (which I have never been brave enough to do) doesn’t mean you are indifferent to Armenians. Of course not. But some horrors are (ital) so (ital) great they become tattooed on human consciousness – permanent symbols of suffering, emblematic of evil. And the more anger and grief are concentrated, the more intense they are. This is what the young need to be taught – and to experience. And it’s why I have made four pilgrimages to the battlefields. I use that important word ‘pilgrimage’ because we tread on sacred ground.
The Great War was, in the words of Siegfried Sassoon ‘the world’s worst wound.’ That wound can never be healed. The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was about 40 million: estimates range from 15 to 19 million deaths and about 23 million wounded military personnel, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history. No wonder it feels somewhat easier to concentrate on individual deaths, because through particular stories you can gain a foothold on a mountain-range of pain.
So we concentrate on the famous poets of World War 1 who have given voice to the dead. The oldest person in our group (51
people) is the distinguished poet from Belfast, Michael Longley, CBE
, who was born 35 days months before the start of the Second World War and whose father was a hero of the First. And demonstrating the involvement of the young are Mira and engaged couple Sonia and Edward – all 26. In between – representing every decade – we are Christians, Jews, doubters and unbelievers, from many backgrounds and jobs, retired and working, those who choose the white flower of the Peace Pledge Union and those who wear the red poppy of Remembrance as a fitting symbol of grief. No niggling confrontation here.
Over three days, in gravely beautiful cemeteries and before soaring memorials, in cold clear sunlight and bitter, driving rain, we read aloud the words of poets like Wilfred Owen
, Edward Thomas
, Isaac Rosenberg
, Siegfried Sassoon
, Edward Blunden
and many others – because they encapsulate the horror of all
conflict. At 15 and passionately anti-war, I fell in love with the work of Wilfred Owen
, whose words have never been bettered:
My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity.
Pity, indeed. Wilfred Owen (a hero who chose to return to the Western Front to be with his men) was awarded the Military Cross in October 1918, then killed in murderous machine gun fire on November 4th 1918. He was already a great poet at the age of 25. In Shrewsbury the Armistice bells were ringing when his parents’ doorbell chimed with the dreaded news. At his grave I find it hard to control my emotions – yet even more intense is the experience of standing in the small, brick cellar of the Forester’s House where he and his comrades took shelter from German firepower, not long before the end. There he wrote his last letter to his ‘Dearest Mother’, jostled by fifty men crammed for shelter in a small, smoky space:‘I hope you are as warm as I am, as serene in your room as I am here… Of this I am certain, you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.’
With our own new band of friends we drive along the Western Front, knowing that for every three centimetres of ground a British soldier died trying to capture it or a German soldier died trying to defend it. Many were fighting from duty rather than inclination – for example, Edward Thomas (widely known for his simple, exquisite poem, ‘Adelstrop’) was a complicated, sensitive literary man who kept a detailed nature diary at the Front. He found consolation in observing field mice and wondered, ‘Does a mole ever get hit by a shell?’ This brilliant man was himself killed (age 39) at the battle of Arras by a shell blast.
Many men – some famous, most not – found moments of relief on the battlefield by interacting with animals and notice odd moments of beauty. In a famous poem Isaac Rosenberg
hears the song of ‘unseen
larks.’ Rosenberg was a lowly private – a brilliant artist and poet whose poverty-stricken parents emigrated from Russia to England. These days his paintings fetch thousands at auction and his poetry is rightly revered. Rosenberg (whose
grave we visited) was killed in action in April 1918, age 28. So the litany goes on. The loss. The waste.
Between 1914 and 1918 (and let us not forget the terrible flu pandemic of 1919) the world lost the flower of its youth. To give but one example, over 2,000 German undergraduates enlisted, hot for glory, and went over the top arm in arm, singing patriotic songs, only to be mown down in minutes by British guns. All their names are carved beautifully in oak at the German cemetery at Langemark — where we also see a large flat area of grass, the mass ‘comrades’ grave’ which is the last resting place of 25,000 more souls, whose names are on massive black blocks of stone all around. Compared to the Commonwealth cemeteries the German ones are sombre, overshadowed by trees. But how important to visit – to remember the sorrow of the mothers of Wolfgang, Otto and Fritz as well.
Just as we listened intently to British and Irish poets, so we too heard poems by Americans and two read in German. There are many Jewish graves (marked by the Star of David) in both the German and the American Cemeteries – where, under the Stars and Stripes (forever flown at half mast), I noticed the internationalism of the names: Stultz, Moskowitz, Olsen, Pezzullo, Pauw. And so many brave women too – nurses killed tending the wounded. Again and again on the message is driven into your heart: Death has neither gender, rank nor nationality.
In icy driving rain one morning we visited the impressive French memorial to the men killed in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais during the Great War: over 585,000 names of ALL nationalities, listed alphabetically. There were the names of Edward Thomas and Isaac Rosenberg and other poets too – but also the Chinese names of non-combatant labourers who had no choice but to work on construction. It is for them too that we wear our poppies. The poppy was noticed by both Private Rosenberg (‘I snatched two poppies/ From the parapet’s edge/ Two bright red poppies…’) and Lieutenant-Colonel, Dr John McRae, one of the heroic Canadians at Vimy Ridge. After his best friend was blown to bits and McCrae had been forced to act as chaplain and bury him, he scribbled the poem that’s become an emblem of that terrible conflict: ’In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row….’ The red poppy is a sign of blood and of beauty – and that is why I do not want it drained of colour. I do not want the anger and passion bleached out.
Every night at 8.00 p.m. a moving ceremony takes place under the Menin Gate in Ieper – Ypres. Since 1928 The Last Post Ceremony has become part of the daily life of the town and the local people are proud of this simple tribute to the courage and self-sacrifice of those who fell in its defence. Last Sunday we were there – and I was honoured to be chosen by the War Poets Association to lay their wreath, flanked either side by Americans Brad Underwood and Sally Brown, who have travelled five times from Texas and from Alabama to pay their respects to the dead.
A male voice choir from Colwn Bay sang beautifully in Welsh – and then the Last Post rang out. Our own great poet Michael Longley stepped forward to read the famous lines by Laurence Binyon, heard in churches and public buildings all over Britain: ‘Age shall not wither them…..’ Once hundreds of people had responded, ‘We will remember them’ the wreath laying began. Slowly Brad, Sally and I walked from one side to the other of the massive memorial that commemorates the names of over 54,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth Forces who died in the Ypres Salient and who have no known grave. Slowly we ascended the steps to where the wreaths are placed and I stepped forward. It was a moment of great emotional power, to feel the poppy wreath crisp in my hands, to hang it in place, to bow our heads… then pace solemnly back, before the Reveille rang out under the arches.
The experience remains overwhelming. At the Menin Gate, overawed by so many strange names on white stone, you comprehend something miraculous: that this is ALL our family – the family of humankind. That mourning spreads out like ripples on a pond – our red poppies laid down as a gesture of love, pity, bewilderment, anger and pride. This last pilgrimage has left me changed by the profound, permanent importance of what we have seen. And by the immeasurable power of all those silent cries from the unforgotten dead — for Peace.
Closing Date is 15th Septemeber
Entrants must be 25 or Under
‘War poetry’ is a phrase that, for many of us, brings to mind the lines of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon – “what passing-bells for these who die as cattle?”; “O, but Everyone/ Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.” The poetry of the First World War has been consistently anthologized, remembered and studied in classroom and universities across the world. The poetry of the Second World War, in contrast, seems to have much more of a fragile grip on our public consciousness – although this is a balance that many are seeking to redress.
The Poetry Society’s Timothy Corsellis Prize, hosted on Young Poets Network, was created and memory of a young poet and pilot killed in 1941 at the age of 20. Timothy Corsellis’ poems explore the experience of the Blitz and the combined boredom and exhilaration of flight training. Originally a conscientious objector, Timothy volunteered for the RAF in 1940. However, horrified to be put under Bomber Command, which would involve the bombing of civilians, he requested a transfer, and before his death, spent six months as an Air Raid Precautions Officer, helping civilians through the Blitz. There is a fascinating biography of Timothy here on the War Poets Association website if you’d like to find out more, and you can also hear actor Tim Bentinck reading Timothy’s poems ‘Engine Failure’ and ‘Dawn After the Raid
The Timothy Corsellis Prize, named in his memory, was originally launched in 2014 and encourages young poets up to the age of 25 to explore the poetry of the Second World War, and the lives and legacies of its authors, by producing their own poetic responses. The 2016 Prize profiles the work of seven poets writing during the war years: Keith Douglas, Sidney Keyes, Alun Lewis, John Jarmain, Henry Reed, and Anna Akhmatova.
All these poets – lesser-known to many than Sassoon, Owen or Rosenberg, but poets of just as much power – wrote with great insight of their experience of war. Keith Douglas noted that “Hell cannot be let loose twice”, and there seems to have been a sense of this among poets of the Second World War, resulting in a markedly different – although no less vivid or valuable – style of war poetry. You can find out more about each of the seven poets featured in this year’s prize, and read examples of their work, by following the link to this special article on Young Poets Network.
The winner of last year’s Corsellis prize, Jenny Burville-Riley, used Alun Lewis’ poem ‘All Day It has Rained’ as the inspiration for her own haunting tribute and prize-winning poem:
Hovering ghosts in Himalayan foothills
skin beautifully cool, eyes
hollow as spent cartridges
we exhale smoke from Victorys
by the side of a road that passes
the convalescence hospital.
Rough cut layers of mountain above
march in sturdy sequence to
a towering crescendo of white summits.
Geology softens in morning light
transforms to crumpled piles of jumble
waiting to be rifled through.
Beneath, a lone Sherpa
starts his slow ascent, bent back
burdened with a baby grand piano
stiff legs skyward as a big game trophy.
We watch the weighted figure
with amazement for the Sherpa
is a mere eighth-rest of a man.
“Look at that lazy bugger”
quips Dusty and quick laughter
landslides in a throaty scree.
Jenny writes: “In Lewis’s poem there is the juxtaposition of mundane details such as “darning dirty socks” with dramatic images such as “dropping bombs on Rome” and “herded refugees”. I tried to create juxtapositional images too: a raw, rugged environment vs the strange, unexpected appearance of a refined instrument – the baby grand piano – on a man’s back!”
Young Poets Network has already received many fantastic entries to the 2016 Corsellis Prize, and it’s encouraging more! As well as poetry, Young Poets Network also welcomes the insights of essayists in its Corsellis Young Critics Prize, which runs concurrently with the poetry prize, and asks you to write about which three poets of the seven listed above you think are most likely to be read in twenty years’ time, and why.
Both prizes are open to all young writers aged 25 and under, living anywhere in the world. The deadline for all entries is Monday 15 September.
The judges for both prizes will be Professor Fran Brearton (for the War Poets Association), a leading authority on war poetry; Nic Vanderpeet from Imperial War Museums; Judith Palmer, Director of The Poetry Society, and, new to the panel this year, Wendy Cope, noted poet and author of, among other collections, Making Cocoa For Kingsley Amis.
Prizes include book tokens, a selection of poetry goodies, and publication on Young Poets Network. The first prize poem will be published in The Poetry Society’s quarterly paper Poetry News, and the first prize essay will be published on The Poetry Society’s website.
For more information and for details of how to submit your work, please visit the Timothy Corsellis Prize page on Young Poets Network.
Young Poets Network is The Poetry Society’s online platform for young poets up to the age of 25. Here you’ll find features about poets and poetry, challenges and competitions to inspire your own writing, new writing from young poets, and advice and guidance from the rising and established stars of the poetry scene. We also bring you the latest news and ideas from the writing world, and a list of competitions, magazines and writing groups which particularly welcome young writers.
Young Poets Network would like to thank the Corsellis family for their generosity in establishing this Prize and their continuing support of The Poetry Society.
Portrait by Kelvin Boyles
Michael Longley was born in Belfast in July 1939, the eldest of twin boys. His parents, Richard and Constance Longley, were both from England, and moved to Belfast in the 1920s. Longley was educated at Belfast’s Royal Academical Institution, and then, from 1958-1963, at Trinity College Dublin, where he studied Classics. He returned to Belfast in 1964 where he has lived ever since. At Trinity he met other young poets – among them Derek Mahon and Brendan Kennelly – and on his return to Belfast developed literary friendships with Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon. He is one of a generation of poets in Ireland who brought about a new ‘renaissance’ in Irish writing from the 1960s onwards.
Longley’s father, Major Richard Longley, served in the London-Scottish regiment during the First World War, and his military service has been a long-standing inspiration for his poet-son. Longley’s first collection, No Continuing City was published in 1969, and contains the powerful elegy for his father, who died in 1958, ‘In Memoriam’. In the poem, Longley links his father’s wartime career with his later suffering (‘your old wounds woke / As cancer’); at the same time he projects himself as a metaphorically born out of his father’s survival of the Great War battlefields. That First World War inheritance is both familial and literary, given the extent to which Longley’s poems are haunted not only by Richard Longley’s wartime experience, but also by the poet’s own absorption of the work of twentieth-century soldier poets – notably Edward Thomas, for whom Longley has written several tribute poems and elegies.
With the onset of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland in 1969, Longley’s poetry took on a new political resonance. His poetry is distinguished by the way it draws imaginative links between conflicts past and present, and in doing so probes some of the most difficult ethical questions thrown up by the experience of the poet’s home ground. His versions and adaptations from Homer, for instance, obliquely connect the Trojan War with some of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century, as well as with the Northern Irish Troubles. In one of his best known poems, ‘Wounds’, from 1972, his father’s death in World War I is linked to sectarian killings in Northern Ireland, in a complex exploration of victimhood and sacrifice. His poems are also, as Paul Muldoon has observed, emblematic of ‘an imaginative domain in which we can all move forward’. The poignant and thought-provoking 1994 Homeric poem ‘Ceasefire’ addresses the difficulty of overcoming the past, of trying to break a cycle of violence: ‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done / And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son’.
One of the outstanding elegists and war poets of the last four decades, Longley is also preoccupied with love – that ‘No Man’s Land’, as he calls it, ‘between one human being and another’ – and with the beauty (sometimes savagery) of the natural world. Those themes – as with such predecessors as Robert Graves and Edward Thomas – are entwined throughout his writings, expanding what we understand by the term ‘war poet’. In the inter-linked modes of love poet, war poet and nature poet, Longley is, as Heaney described him, a ‘custodian of griefs and wonders’. He has been the recipient of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, the Wilfred Owen Medal, the Whitbread Prize, and the T.S. Eliot Prize. He was elected to a three-year term as Ireland Chair of Poetry in 2008.
Here are two pictures from my father’s head –
I have kept them like secrets until now:
First, the Ulster Division at the Somme
Going over the top with ‘[****] the Pope!’
‘No Surrender!’: a boy about to die,
Screaming ‘Give ‘em one for the Shankill!’
‘Wilder than Gurkhas’ were my father’s words
Of admiration and bewilderment.
Next comes the London-Scottish padre
Resettling kilts with his swagger-stick,
With a stylish backhand and a prayer.
Over a landscape of dead buttocks
My father followed him for fifty years.
At last, a belated casualty,
He said – lead traces flaring till they hurt –
‘I am dying for King and Country, slowly.’
I touched his hand, his thin head I touched.
Now, with military honours of a kind,
With his badges, his medals like rainbows,
His spinning compass, I bury beside him
Three teenage soldiers, bellies full of
Bullets and Irish beer, their flies undone.
A packet of Woodbines I throw in,
A lucifer, the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Paralysed as heavy guns put out
The night-light in a nursery for ever;
Also a bus-conductor’s uniform –
He collapsed beside his carpet-slippers
Without a murmur, shot through the head
By a shivering boy who wandered in
Before they could turn the television down
Or tidy away the supper dishes.
To the children, to a bewildered wife,
I think ‘Sorry Missus’ was what he said.
Michael Longley, Collected Poems (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006)
Fran Brearton, Reading Michael Longley (Tarset; Bloodaxe, 2006) and The Great War in Irish Poetry: W.B.Yeats to Michael Longley (Oxford: OUP, 2000)
Matthew Campbell, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Contemporary Irish Poetry (Cambridge, CUP, 2004)
Peter McDonald, Mistaken Identities: Poetry and Northern Ireland (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997)
Alan Peacock and Kathleen Devine, eds., The Poetry of Michael Longley (Gerrards Cross; Colin Smythe, 2000)
Fran Brearton, 2008