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  • Stallworthy on War Poetry
  • Simon Gatrell
Jon Stallworthy. Survivors' Songs From Maldon to the Somme. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 240 pp. Paper $26.98

Jon Stallworthy is a fine poet and an excellent biographer, but this collection of essays doesn't quite live up to high expectations; this disappointment is the perhaps inevitable consequence of the fact that the essays were written over a long period of time and for differing occasions. Stallworthy has not felt it possible to revise them deeply enough to create a harmonious whole. The title too is somewhat deceptive, since Stallworthy's overwhelming concentration is on the two world wars of the twentieth century; on the other hand it does direct the reader's attention to a proposition implied but never fully articulated in the book: that an impulse that lies behind almost all fine poetry of war is a consciousness of survival.

The first chapter, "The Death of the Hero," was the introduction to Stallworthy's Oxford Book of War Poetry (1984); it is, naturally enough considering where it first appeared, a general survey of his potential material. It begins: "'Poetry,' Wordsworth reminds us, 'is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,' and there can be no area of human [End Page 357] experience that has generated a wider range of powerful feelings than war.…" Wordsworth went on to say that the powerful feelings should be "recollected in tranquillity" and thought about "long and deeply," an ideal borne out by the majority of the work Stallworthy discusses, which was written after the event, sometimes long after. The early part of the chronological discussion seems a little routine, but, as elsewhere in the book, Stallworthy becomes more lively when considering the First World War and the sociocultural attitudes to war of the late-Victorian and Edwardian middle classes—in particular the idea that war should be treated like a game, like rugby or cricket. He suggests that poems of Brooke or Sorley that celebrate the idea of a heroic death in a just cause are "the tragic outcome of educating a generation to face not the future but the past." I wonder, though, if these poets had understood when they volunteered the brutal truths of trench warfare, would they have done any differently? And if it turns out that you have to die for the cause that your country's politicians have espoused, is it any more tragic to die thinking yourself a sacrifice in a glorious but bloody game than to die angry at the futile waste? Stallworthy quotes Yeats often and with force; following him, I might cite the second section of "Lapis Lazuli": "…Black out; Heaven blazing into the head / Tragedy wrought to its uttermost. / Though…. / all the drop-scenes drop at once / Upon a hundred thousand stages, / It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce."

The second chapter gives its title to the whole book, "Survivors' Songs," a phrase that is nicely alliterative and certainly applies satisfactorily to most of the Welsh poets who are the subject of this lecture (as it was originally)—Aneirin, Taliesin, and David Jones were indeed survivors and did report back to their people on the battles they experienced. But it is also true that the poems of the hero of this book, Wilfred Owen, are decisively coloured in the complexity of their meanings by the knowledge that he was killed within days of the conclusion of the First World War—that he was not in the end a survivor of that conflict. The centre of energy of Stallworthy's discussion in this chapter is Jones's disgust at the application of science to the arms of war, the mass destruction now available from a remote distance—machine gun, gas canister, long-range artillery. He quotes from In Parenthesis: "We feel a rubicon has been passed between striking with a hand weapon as men used to do and loosing poison from the sky as we do ourselves. We doubt the decency of our own inventions…." Taking up the argument of the first chapter, Stallworthy sees Jones's notion of decency as essentially gentlemanly—that he laments the passing of that Victorian [End Page 358...


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pp. 357-362
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