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Issue 50 / December 2012

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"The imaginative power of the Great War and its poets can also be felt in the sheer volume of writing which they continue to generate: history, fiction, biography, poetry, drama, film, art history, the personal essay, literary criticism and theory."

Lest We Forget...

Harry Ricketts examines how Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves and other poets of the Great War ignited imaginations and redefined how we think of both war and literature.

The Great War still compels the imagination. It continues to shape how we think about war, and its poets continue to suggest how we might feel about war. American troops training for Afghanistan in 2001 studied not just maps and military procedures but the poems of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke. One young sergeant from Portland, Oregon picked out Owen's 'Dulce et Decorum Est': 'Just by what he said you actually can feel it, or you can get a mental picture of the death or the awful sights.' If a single poem now defines the Great War experience for the English-speaking world - and even modern war in general - it is probably that poem of Owen's about the victim of a gas attack: 'If in some smothering dreams you too could pace / Behind the wagon that we flung him in' - for a moment we are in the nightmare, pacing behind that wagon, seeing that face.

Other contemporary markers of the Great War's enduring significance, as event and symbol, come readily to mind. The death in July 2009 of Harry Patch, 'the last Tommy', to serve in the trenches commanded widespread attention. His funeral was a national event; television and radio documentaries were replayed; Gillian Clarke and the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy were commissioned to write poems.

While the British annual calendar has become increasingly fragmented and eroded, Remembrance Day remains an unassailable landmark, a civic as much as a religious ritual. A few months after Patch's death, the politicians Gordon Brown and David Cameron were both obliged to apologise for seemingly turning the Remembrance Day service at Westminster Abbey into a photo-shoot opportunity - as though they had committed an act of secular impiety, cheated in some test of authenticity. The imaginative power of the Great War and its poets can also be felt in the sheer volume of writing which they continue to generate: history, fiction, biography, poetry, drama, film, art history, the personal essay, literary criticism and theory. Fresh anthologies of the poetry are still regularly published. On a different level of importance, the 2009 England test cricket squad was taken to Flanders Fields as part of its preparation for the Ashes series against the visiting Australians.

Yet the idea of the Great War as a national, cultural, existential benchmark is in some ways quite a recent phenomenon. Forty to fifty years ago, it all looked rather different - certainly as far as the literature was concerned. Sassoon, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden, David Jones were all still alive when I was doing A Levels in the 1960s, but we knew that, except perhaps for Owen, they and the other war poets did not measure up. The modernists were the real twentieth century literary giants: T S Eliot and Ezra Pound in poetry, James Joyce, D H Lawrence and Virginia Woolf in fiction. Apart from Lawrence, these writers might not actually be on our syllabus but they were the real thing. Since then several seismic re-imaginings have so redrawn that literary landscape that it now seems barely recognisable: no longer English literature, but literatures in English. One unexpected consequence has been a renewed interest in a twentieth-century 'English' poetic line with Thomas Hardy as its pre-eminent figure. A number of the war poets - Owen, Edward Thomas, Graves, Sassoon, Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg, Blunden, Brooke - readily take their place in this reconstituted tradition. Their often conflicting and conflicted sense of what it might mean to be 'English' still finds an echo. A new complete poems of Graves in one volume appeared in 2000, previously unpublished letters of Rosenberg in 2007, Thomas's collected poems newly annotated in 2008. Brooke and Gurney have been the subject of recent novels. For Anglophone writers and readers, the Great War and its poets keep renewing themselves.

For many, the connection remains a potent and personal one, if now at some remove. My own father and uncle were both career British army officers, commissioned in the 1930s and serving in the Second World War. My father survived; my uncle died. One reason why they became soldiers, I remember being told, was because my grandfather was graded medically unfit in the Great War, and always felt ashamed. Growing up in the army, I spent my childhood - like many fag-end-of-empire children - ricocheting from posting to posting: England, Malaysia, England, Hong Kong. School became real life, the holidays what we did in-between. Cricket and poetry - the order eventually reversed - became essential for survival: watching, reading, playing, writing. Cricket I shared with my father, poetry with my mother. Strange Meetings - like The Unforgiving Minute, my life of Kipling - draws on and grows out of that energy field.

Those who become obsessed with the poetry of the First World War - and it is poetry easy to become obsessed with - tend to concentrate on a single poet at the expense of the others. Brooke, Sassoon, Owen are obvious cases in point, but what of Thomas, Rosenberg, Graves, Gurney, Blunden, the now almost forgotten Robert Nichols? To follow their often interlinking lives, to read their still searing poems alongside and against each other is to gain an even deeper understanding of what they went through and how they recorded it. Through their combined experience we see human nature tested up to and beyond breaking strain. They show us courage, anger, humour, compassion. Their picture of war is the one we carry with us. They remain our contemporaries. They remind us what we are capable of.

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Harry Ricketts is a poet, writer and critic. In addition to his collections of poetry, essays - and brilliant studies of cricket - his critical books include the acclaimed biography The Unforgiving Minute: A Life of Rudyard Kipling. His new biography, Strange Meetings, focuses on the poets of the first world war and is published by Chatto & Windus.

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Friday, 29 October, 2010

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