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  • War Poetry:From the Victorian Age to the Present
  • Stephen E. Tabachnick
Tim Kendall. Modern English War Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 276 pp. $95.00 £50.00

The physical aspect of this book occasions some melancholy reflections on the present state of academic publishing. It is a relatively small (5.5" x 8.5") volume. The type is uncomfortably small, especially for middle-aged readers like myself, and that of the indented quotations is even smaller. And yet the book sells for a frighteningly high price that will restrict its sales to a few hundred libraries at most.

Fortunately, even these negatives—none of which is the fault of the author and all of which have a lot in common with other academic books these days—have a positive side because of this book's very high intellectual quality. The condensed format calls for extraordinary concision on the part of Tim Kendall, the author of studies of Sylvia Plath and Paul Muldoon, and of the OUP Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry (which sells for $160.00, 800 pp.), among other works. In this densely packed, compact book, Kendall covers a great deal of territory, and delivers extremely sharp and insightful judgments and distinctions that also have the virtue of being relatively brief and pithy. Each page is saturated with very useful, detailed thinking about the major (and many minor) war poets from the end of the Victorian era through the present age of the Iraq war. And somehow, even within the volume's tight physical boundaries, he also manages to quote just enough from the poems, and to comment in enough detail on poetic form as well as content, to support his points. Kendall persuasively makes the case that war poetry—good war poetry—should be considered an integral part of the canon rather than an inferior subspecies confined to a slim [End Page 219] section of an English lit survey anthology. Most of all, he establishes conclusively that it must be judged as any good poetry is judged, not for its political allegiances or agendas but for its honesty and its ability to make the poet's emotional and physical experience real for the reader. Kendall's own honesty about these issues as he challenges easy orthodoxies gives the book something of a controversial edge. Kendall also manages to challenge, if relatively briefly, those who believe that poetry is inevitably superior to the visual media, including television.

Excellent and original analyses of many of the war poems of Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Charlotte Mew, Ivor Gurney, W. H. Auden, Keith Douglas, Sidney Keyes, Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill, and many additional poets, allow Kendall to make his case that the best war-related poems are subtle and important efforts that deserve to be taught in any modern poetry course. He also manages to show that, in their best war works, these poets were attempting to resolve difficult and important poetic issues specific to war poetry. These issues include, first and foremost, how to reconcile the necessity for any poem to be aesthetically attractive with the need to accurately depict the unpleasant circumstances of war; and how to be honest about both the positive and negative feelings aroused by war, rather than to fall into the easy moralism of a pro-war or anti-war preachiness—which, to quote Kendall, amounts to "stooping to the linguistic crudity of the political realm."

Kendall sees that both pro-war and anti-war poetry have militated against the acceptance of war poetry in general as an important and subtle genre because of the blatant propagandistic crudity that these subgenres inevitably display. He finds that "War poetry which advertises its opinions with a prefix is likely to be more interested in those opinions than in poetry." Perhaps because it is more prevalent and fashionable in many academic circles, Kendall devotes most of his attention to anti-war poetry, writing that "It is partly the failure to notice difficulties in the artistic exploitation of violence which makes the bulk of contemporary anti-war poetry seem sentimental and morally dubious." In other words, much anti-war poetry is...


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pp. 219-222
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