Thursday, 19 February 2009

First War Poet?

At present, in my reordering of the Gurney collection, I am bringing together and sorting the writings from September 1922 into 1923 - a collection of letters/appeals and a large number of poems, many of which are at present unpublished.

Following the comments on my previous blog post I was drawn to look more closely at those poetry manuscripts titled 'Armistice Day', of which there are three from this period, being two copies of one short, ten line poem, and one manuscript containing a poem of c.58 lines. Both poems contain the phrase 'One of Five', and looking around papers of this period there is occasional mention of this, being a claim that he be amongst the 'First five war poets' doing/giving 'honour' to England; in another manuscript he writes 'Claiming place in First Five Writers of Western Front (left alive - perhaps of dead)' (GA44.112).

A corner of another manuscript from this period is titled 'War poets at a guess.', under which Gurney lists himself, Robert Graves, S.Sassoon, R.Nichols, F.W. Harvey, Brett Young, 'Owen/Wilfred', Julian Grenfell, R.Sorley [sic], and 'Peter Quennell?'. Rupert Brooke was added to one side, but only in brackets.

Peter Quennell was a young poet whose first book (Masques and Poems) was published in 1922, the year before that in which Gurney made this list. Gurney's question mark was perhaps justified: Quennell, born in 1905, would not have seen action in the war. It is perhaps a subject portrayed within his book (I have not yet seen a copy) for Gurney to have noted it, although is most likely that Gurney saw a review of the volume in the press and might have presumed, with its timing, that Quennell was a young poet who had experienced life at the Front. One wonders whether Gurney's seemingly grudging addition of Brooke in parentheses is a comment on his value as a war poet. Gurney certainly wasn't very sympathetic of Brooke, writing his 1917 set of Sonnetts, published at the end of Severn & Somme as a 'counterblast against [Brooke's] "Sonnetts 1914", which were written before the grind of war and by an officer' - the latter being a damning indictment (Collected Letters, p.210).

In this manuscript list of War Poets, three have been appended by a number, perhaps a grading of the poet: (1) Robert Nichols, (2) Brett Young and (3) Gurney's friend F.W. Harvey.

Whether it is through the further examination of his fellow War Poets' work, through the way in which he sees his own work taking direction over the next couple of years, or just through a more forthright/positive view of his work in relation to that of the others, it is interesting that by 1925 he is seen in his letters and poems he is being assertive in his claim to be the 'First War Poet of England'. This is a view that some critics are coming round to believing to be true, but it is one that is not able to argued fully until the many unpublished poems are available to be assessed by the various critics. Only four years to wait!


Tim Kendall said...

Do we know what poems by each of these poets Gurney had read? Hibberd and Onions, in The Winter of the World, suggest that Gurney's 'War Books' contains ('possibly) an allusion to Owen's 'Anthem for Doomed Youth'. I'd been rather sceptical until now, but perhaps they were right.

Karen said...

Another individual to consider for the title "first war poet" is Mary Borden (1886-1968)whose angry anti-war verse first appeared in the English Review in 1917. Borden was an expat American who started her own mobile hospital that moved through "the forbidden zone". Although Borden wasn't in battle she was as close to it as a woman could get -- she saw the results of its carnage daily for the better part of four years as she dealt with hundreds of wounded and dying men. This experience left an indelible impression on her that resulted in some blistering poetry and, later, an unsparing and graphic memoir (for very graphic, read Ellen LaMotte, a nurse who worked with Borden). On another point -- Gurney's "One of Five" and "First Five War Poets" -- I have before me a copy of a set of "war" poems written by Marion Scott. On the title page she has written "Songs of the Five by one of the 'other five', Marion M. Scott". I do not know who the other five were and she gives no clues. These poems appear to have been written during the war.

Humfrey said...

Were there not anti-war poets of previous wars? Housman rather lamented the Boer War, but did not actually oppose it as far as I understand - but surely someone did?