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Jean Moorcroft Wilson: A mixture of feelings in the poets’ verdict

'Even in more hard-headed military terms, it would be difficult to argue that the First World War was a positive venture'

08 November, 2018 — By Jean Moorcroft Wilson

Wilfred Owen

A WRITING career devoted mainly to First World War poets has left me with an extremely divided view of that conflict.

There is no denying that the war called forth admirable qualities from those involved in it – courage, a far greater appreciation of comradeship and a less inflexible attitude towards class and gender divisions, among them.

In the words of Ezra Pound, there was: “Daring as never before … /Young blood and high blood,/Fair cheeks and fine bodies;//fortitude as never before//frankness as never before.”

Another unexpected benefit were the works of art which came out of it in music, painting and literature. For there was, as Pound’s poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley shows, some poetry of great power, beauty and insight, inspired by extreme emotions and written under great pressure. Work by poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Charles Sorley, Edward Thomas and Robert Graves, as I discovered in writing about them, need no special pleading to be included among the finest verse of the early 20th century.

Wilfred Owen is almost universally acknowledged to be the greatest of them all.

Yet however wonderful Owen’s war poetry is, it quickly becomes clear that his greatest poems deal with the other, negative, side to events of 1914-1918 – the waste of the millions of (mainly young) participants, what Owen calls “The pity of war”. And, as he demonstrates time and again, “the poetry is in the pity”.

In a poem like Futility, for instance, which opens with the narrator instructing his fellow-soldiers to “move” the dead body of a simple country lad “into the sun” in a desperate hope that it might bring him back to life:

Always it woke him, even in France,

Until this morning and this snow.

If anything might wake him now

The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds –

Woke once the clays of a cold star.

Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides

Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

As Pound again reminds, those who volunteered did so for a variety of reasons, “some from fear of weakness,/some from fear of censure”, some “from love of slaughter”, but all walked “eye-deep in hell”, from which, if they were lucky enough to survive, they rarely escaped.

Even in more hard-headed military terms, it would be difficult to argue that the First World War was a positive venture.

Yes, the Allies won, we all know, but as we also suspect, the punitive treatment of the Germans at the Treaty of Versailles contributed largely to the advent of the Second World War with its equally devastating loss of life and suffering. Let us not “celebrate” the First World War this weekend so much as acknowledge the sacrifice of those who participated in it.

Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s latest book, Robert Graves: From Great War Poet to Good-bye to All That (1895-1929), is published by Bloomsbury

 

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