In the two decades following his death, William Noel Hodgson was one of the best known of the war poets. During his lifetime most of his writing appeared under the pen-name ‘Edward Melbourne’ in Cecil Chesterton’s weekly paper The New Witness, with subsequent reprintings in the regional press. The first collected edition of his work published under his own name, in November 1916, sold out in a few weeks; within months it was into its third edition. After the war his poems were anthologized, broadcast – especially on Armistice Day – and even set to music. He used traditional verse forms with a fluency which lent itself well to musical settings, and the characteristic mix of resolve, resignation and sadness that resonates through his war poems was in tune with the popular mood.
A clergyman’s son, born in January 1893 in rural Gloucestershire, Noel Hodgson grew up in Berwick-upon-Tweed. He was close to his father, who longed for him to enter the church; his own attitude to this seems to have been more ambivalent. At twelve years old he won a scholarship to Durham School, going on from there in 1911 to Christ Church, Oxford as an Exhibitioner, to read Greats. He was passionate about the Classics, particularly Homer, and took his copies of the Iliad and Odyssey in the original Greek to France with him in 1915.
Hodgson wrote poetry and stories from childhood. The earliest surviving manuscripts date back to 1909, when he was sixteen. They cover a wide range of subjects and styles and show that even at that age he took writing seriously and read widely. By the time he was an undergraduate, he had started to submit work for publication. In 1913 he had poems accepted by The Spectator and The Nation. By the spring of 1914 at the latest, he had made the most important literary contact of his life with Cecil Chesterton, G.K.Chesterton’s brother. Cecil owned and ran The New Witness, which featured work by some of the leading writers of the day. On 11 June 1914 he published Hodgson’s poem ‘Labuntur Anni’ [The Years Glide by]. Other poems followed and as the war progressed, Chesterton was not only publishing almost all the work Hodgson sent him, he was actively encouraging him to write more, in prose as well as verse.
The recurring themes of Hodgson’s poems are friendship, the ending of childhood, and a celebration of the northern landscapes he loved, particularly the Cumbrian fells. A keen climber, he craved the long perspectives of the mountain top and they informed his approach to life. His first poetic response to the war, ‘Roma Fuit’ [Rome is no more], was typical of him. He was climbing in the Cairngorms as the crisis deepened and, heading south through the borders, he described a peaceful landscape that had once been a battlefield, where long-dead enemies lay forgotten under the grass, sharing ‘the great alliance of the dead.’ It was a reminder of the ultimate futility of all wars, published in The New Witness on 6 August 1914, two days after Britain entered the war with Germany.
From his mid-teens Noel Hodgson had believed that war was brutal and achieved nothing. He also saw it as an inescapable part of human history – one of humanity’s ‘mad catastrophes’. He volunteered a few days after the publication of ‘Roma Fuit’ and served as a junior officer in the 9th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, first experiencing battle at Loos, where he won the Military Cross. Through the spring of 1916 he turned to prose more than poetry to express the realities of front-line life.
In the final weeks leading up to the Battle of the Somme, Hodgson he wrote the poem most often associated with his name. ‘Before Action’ is a three-fold prayer for courage in the face of death, and it has become part of the story of the battle. His battalion was to advance across the downward slope of a hill, in full view of German trenches on three sides. They knew how slender their chances were. On 1 July 1916, two days after the publication of ‘Before Action’, Noel Hodgson was killed in the opening minutes of the advance, as he had expected. Over half the battalion and all but one of the officers who fought that day became casualties with him.
By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening’s benison,
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, Lord.
By all of all man’s hopes and fears,
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.
I, that on my familiar hill,
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this;–
By all delights that I shall miss
Help me to die, O Lord.
Charlotte Zeepvat, ( 2015)
William Noel Hodgson, Verse and Prose in Peace and War, Smith, Elder & Co, 1916; John Murray, 1917
Adcock, A. St. John, For Remembrance, Soldier Poets who have Fallen in the War, Hodder & Stoughton, 1918
Osborn, E.B, The New Elizabethans, John Lane, 1919
Charlotte Zeepvat, Before Action; William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, a story of the Great War
Anne Powell, (ed), A Deep Cry, Sutton, 1998
Martin Middlebrook, The First Day on the Somme, Allen Lane, 1971
(Hodgson’s work features in numerous anthologies and ‘Before Action’ is frequently quoted in accounts of the Battle of the Somme.)