Sunday, 23 February 2014

In defence of the War Poets

“It seems to have become much easier to understand the Great War as poetry than as history – and as anti-war poetry at that.” Thus Jeremy Paxman, writing in his recent book of his TV series, Great Britain’s Great War.

The centenary of the First World War is now truly upon us, and I sense a real danger of centenary fatigue before we even get to August and the anniversary of the opening hostilities. This week sees the start of a TV debate between two opposing historians, Max Hastings and Niall Ferguson, each presenting their contrasting answers to the questions, should Britain have joined the war in the first place? And, having done so, was it worth it? As it happens I heard both Paxman and Hastings at the Cheltenham Literature Festival last autumn, the one hectoring, the other Churchillian in his delivery. Both, however, were anxious to debunk the ‘myths’ about the Great War – lions led by donkeys, indifference of the generals to the loss of life, the ‘lost’ generation, misery of life in the trenches, the futility of it all, etc. Both were keen to blame one tiny group of people for having propagated these myths in the first place, and having thus distorted the ‘reality’ of the war in the minds of young people for more than half a century.

Let me take a roll-call of this tiny group: Owen, W; Sassoon, S; Graves, R; Blunden, E; Aldington, R; Rosenberg, I; Gurney, I; Jones, D; Read, H. I have limited the list to those ‘trench poets’ who wrote about what they had experienced, first-hand, on active service on the Western Front. Hence no Edward Thomas in this list, and no Rupert Brooke. Do you recognize those last two names?  How many poems written by all of the above can you remember – even their titles: Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, ‘Strange Meeting’ and ‘Futility’; Sassoon’s ‘The General’ and ‘Glory of Women’, perhaps; Rosenberg’s ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ and ‘Returning We Hear the Larks’?

It’s a frequent complaint that these poets, and the poems they produced, are quite unrepresentative of the vast quantity of poetry written during and after the First World War, by women as well as men, by those who served in the Navy and the Royal Flying Corps as well as in the Army, and by those not fighting at all. Yet it is these few poets and these few poems that have generated what Max Hastings calls ‘the poets’ view of the war’, which he so deplores.

Nearly a year ago, I posted a blog entitled ‘What larks? Birdsong, the Great War and cultural memory’.  In it, I spoke of the Conference I am helping to organise for the English Association, which is to be held in Oxford in early September this year. Although its title is specifically ‘British Poetry of the First World War’, the keynote speakers, Edna Longley and Jay Winter, and the presenters of papers come from around the world, the United States to Japan, Ireland to India. And the range of poets to be discussed goes far beyond the trench poets I have named above, seminal though they are; so the debates and discussions at the Conference are likely to be enlivening. They will challenge (I am sure) some of the growing number of myths about the culpability of the war poets for the ‘myths’ that obscure the ‘truth’ about the Great War – its causes, course and consequences.

It seems strange to admit that, now perhaps more than ever, war poets need friends, and it is good that most of the groups, societies and associations linked to individual poets or to groups of poets will be well represented at the Conference: the War Poets Association, the Wilfred Owen Association, the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, the Friends of the Dymock Poets, The Ivor Gurney Society, among others. Like all good conferences, this one won’t be all work and no play. One highlight will be a celebrity recital by the baritone Roderick Williams, with a programme of songs, many of which are settings of poems by the war poets. Another will be the Conference Dinner in the Great Hall of Wadham College, where the Guest of Honour will be Professor Jon Stallworthy, without question the doyen of war poetry studies.

Sassoon, Graves and Blunden, survivors all, published memoirs of their Great War experiences a decade or so after the Armistice. These, too, have led to some disturbing attacks. Here, for example, is a distinguished historian of war, Professor Jeremy Black of Exeter University, in The Great War and the Making of the Modern World (2011):

The standard images of the war, both literary and visual, have been ably criticized by military historians … who have pointed out the problems created by a very selective reading of a misleading literary legacy, notably of works published in 1928-30. Memoirs are often unreliable as history, but they are what the public and the media tend to rely on for their history because they offer triumph over adversity, as well as futility and pathos as themes, whereas straightforward scholarship is considered too dull. (p.220)

I have a list of adjectives to describe this paragraph: ‘condescending’, ‘peevish’, ‘dismissive’ will do for a start. More measured, but no less troubling, is the stance adopted by Professor David Reynolds, of Cambridge, in his recent book The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century (2013). He argues that “we need to think more critically about the now ‘iconic’ war poets” and claims it is “surely bizarre that more words should have been written about a score of war poets than about the 4 million non-white troops who fought for the Allies during the Great War (p.431).” I think it is surely bizarre to propose such a false antithesis. Nearly all the words written about the war poets have been written about the poems as literature, not as history, and have been written by poets, critics, teachers and scholars. If not enough has been written about the non-white troops who fought for the Allies, the responsibility for this lies, I would have thought, with those whose job is history, not poetry.

Much of David Reynolds’ book I have found illuminating. But I allowed myself a wry smile when, after reading how he believed the war poets had had too much influence on the way we now understand the war, Professor Reynolds ended the book first by citing Isaac Rosenberg, then by quoting - with approbation - Ivor Gurney and finally echoing - without attribution –Siegfried Sassoon (pp.433-435). Perhaps after all, historians, too, need the war poets.

Adrian Barlow

For full details of the English Association’s Conference, British Poetry of the First World War, including the complete programme and booking forms, click here.

[Illustration: Detail from a First World War memorial window in the Town Church, St Peter Port, Guernsey, Channel Islands. Photo © the author.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

David Lodge: Lives in Writing

A new book by David Lodge is a cause for celebration. Lives in Writing is officially published today, but I’ve already read it. Arriving early for my train to Paris yesterday, I saw the book’s eye-catching cover in Foyles at St Pancras; started to read it before I had even checked in; nearly missed the train because I was already deep into Lodge’s essay on his friend Malcolm Bradbury, and carried on reading all the way to Gare du Nord. On the Metro, I only just remembered to get off at Place Monge in the Latin Quarter, and have since read happily through the night in the garret room on the sixth floor of the friendly hotel where I always stay, in the rue Lacépède.

This is a book of essays, all but one originally published in journals such as the New York Review of Books, the Guardian Review or the TLS. It’s one of Lodge’s great virtues that he has always been an academic who believes in writing to be understood and enjoyed by readers outside as well as within the small world of academic Eng. Lit. In this he acknowledges himself a Kermodian: when he quotes admiringly the late critic Frank Kermode’s assertion that criticism ‘can be quite humbly and sometimes even magnificently useful’, he immediately adds Kermode’s comment that it must also give pleasure. This describes Lodge’s own criticism beautifully.

‘These essays,’ writes Lodge, ‘variously describe, evaluate and exemplify different ways in which the lives of real people are represented in the written word.’ Describing, evaluating and exemplifying – three words precisely defining the function of criticism at any time and of the role of a teacher of literature at any level. David Lodge is, in the best sense, a teacher of literature, and Lives in Writing proves the truth of the old maxim: ‘we teach what we are’. One of the things that makes this book so engaging is that, running through its thirteen essays - on writers as various as Anthony Trollope, Muriel Spark and Terry Eagleton – there is a fugitive memoir of David Lodge himself. He too, like all but one of his subjects (the exception is Princess Diana) has had a ‘life in writing’; and the reader of Lives in Writing can reconstruct a narrative of Lodge’s own life, his career as an academic and preoccupations as a novelist from the way in which he features as more than the implied author of every one of these essays.

For instance, he begins his essay on John Boorman (originally a TLS review of the film maker’s memoir, Adventures of a Suburban Boy, 2003) by explaining it was Boorman’s film Excalibur that had given him the structural key to his own most successful novel, Small World. Deftly and affectionately he explains how Boorman’s childhood in the world of semi-detached suburbia was later re-imagined in his memorable film about a boy in wartime, Hope and Glory (1987). He does this affectionately both because he clearly admires Boorman greatly and because his own life, as it emerges in glimpses throughout these essays, could also be summed up as the adventures of a suburban boy: Boorman and Lodge both south Londoners born in the 1930s, kids at school during the war (Lodge’s own childhood memoir is called Out of the Shelter).

I was delighted, incidentally, to be reminded of Hope and Glory, a film I much enjoyed and whose screenplay I sometimes used in my own teaching. During the war young Bill who is the film’s hero – based on Boorman himself – is sent to Thames-side Shepperton, to stay with his grandparents. I still recall each frame of the episode in which grandfather (Ian Bannen) teaches Bill to punt and warns him, with great solemnity, ‘Never give up the punt for the pole, my boy: that’s a lesson for life.’ Not many people realise, but this is one of the finest punting scenes in the history of British cinema. There aren’t many, it’s true.

There is, inevitably, a valedictory tenor to several of these essays: Lodge's reflection on the public reaction to the death of Princess Di; his discussion of Trollope contemplating his own exit in his final novel, The Fixed Period; the desperate heroism of the playwright and diarist Simon Gray confronting so many terminal illnesses that the arrival of prostate cancer was, his consultant assured him, nothing to worry about; all of these together could have made for melancholy reading. But Lives in Writing is far from melancholy. It is a book not just of evaluation, but of re-valuation – an attempt to do justice to old friends and old friendship. David Lodge is not a man for settling scores.

Unlike Kingsley Amis. Lodge’s long essay on ‘The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall of Kingsley Amis’ does more than justice to the writer who, with Lucky Jim, wrote the first of the new wave of campus novels, of which Lodge and Bradbury would become past masters. (Talking of which, I’m excluding CP Snow’s The Masters: this, though published in 1951, is set in 1937.) In a revisionary move characteristic of the book as a whole, Lodge describes how in one of his own early essays, ‘The Modern, the Contemporary, and the Importance of Being Amis’ he had admired Amis’s early work but had been relieved that One Fat Englishman had appeared too late for inclusion. Lodge had disliked the novel and its corpulent hero, Roger Micheldene, not realizing until much later in life that the eponymous anti-hero is partly a self-portrait and an exercise in self-disgust. Now he revisits the novel, reading it both more critically and more sympathetically. Finally, in a post-script to the essay he circles Amis one more time, balancing criticism and sympathy again, this time in the light of Philip Larkin’s embittered comments about Amis in the recently published Letters to Monica (ed. Anthony Thwaite, 2010). What interests Lodge here is the flow and ebb of Amis’s friendship with Larkin. As Lodge puts it,

There is always an element of rivalry in a friendship between artists in the same field, and Larkin found he had helped Amis to achieve a level of success and income neither of them had anticipated. (p.48)

Rivalry in friendship is the unexpected theme of the first essay I read yesterday. Everyone knows that Lodge and Bradbury were close friends and collaborators - ‘the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of English letters’ as Lodge suggests with wonderful self-mockery - and this essay is a testament to that enduring friendship. But with candour and regret, Lodge admits that there was also an element of rivalry, and he wonders how his friend must have reacted to seeing Lodge’s novels fare better than his own after the publisher Martin Secker took him on – at Bradbury’s own recommendation. ‘I think,’ he concludes,

we both wished to avoid getting too close to each other’s work, perhaps being influenced by it through knowing too much about it, and thus encouraging the people who insisted on pairing us together or confusing us with each other  … As Mikhail Bakhtin observed, all writers glance sideways at their peers as they write, and it was Malcolm whom I most often invoked as imagined reader and critic, to test the quality of the work.’ (p.186)

If there is a sense of loss running through this book, there is also a tremendous sense of gain. I closed the book at some absurd hour early this morning feeling I had just enjoyed a master-class in autobiographical critical appreciation. For what David Lodge says of Alan Bennett in ‘Alan Bennett’s Serial Autobiography’ describes exactly how I feel now, having been lucky enough to get my hands on Lives in Writing a day early:

Again and again in this book he demonstrates that almost anything that happens to a person can be interesting, moving and entertaining if you write about it well enough (p.94).

Adrian Barlow