Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology

Edited by Tim Kendall


“There are strange Hells within the minds War made …”

Ivor Gurney.


Up until very recently had anyone asked me to recommend just one book of First World War poetry, it would have been Dominic Hibberd and John Onions’ The Winter of the World.  Arranged in the chronological order in which the poems were written, it shows the ebb and flow of patriotism, anger and disillusionment throughout the war, with idealism and bitterness often shoulder to shoulder, depending on the poet, their personal experiences and the stage the war had reached.

Tim Kendall takes a different approach. In Poetry of the First World War the poems are collected together by author, and the authors then listed chronologically by date of birth.

Thus, whilst the first poem in Hibberd and Onions’ book is Robert Bridges’  “Wake up, England!” …

Thou careless, awake!
Thou peacemaker, fight!
Stand, England, for honour,
And God guard the Right!

… in Tim Kendall’s anthology, the first poet we encounter is, slightly unexpectedly perhaps, Thomas Hardy, and the first poem his “Men Who March Away”:

What of the faith and fire within us
Men who march away
Ere the barn-cocks say
Night is growing gray,
To hazards whence no tears can win us;
What of the faith and fire within us
Men who march away?

One of the effects of Kendall’s approach is that it reminds us not all of the best poems about the First World War were written by the soldier-poets, shifting the emphasis slightly away from the war to the poetry itself. It also means we find Siegfried Sassoon spitting and fulminating:

You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.

before Rupert Brooke’s lyrical “1914” – five sonnets that Kendall describes as his ‘rallying cry to a nation’.

Each section is introduced by a brief biography of the poet, what part they played in the war and what their attitude to it was – and it is these introductions, above all, that make this anthology such a valuable addition to the canon of First World War poetry books.

Most anthologies – The Winter of the World included – offer historical background to the poems, with a few literary notes added by way of explanation. Tim Kendall tells us, for instance, that Hardy conceded he couldn’t ‘do patriotic poems very well – seeing the other side  too much’, and then in the introduction to Rudyard Kipling, points out that Kipling’s son John was never referred to as Jack, making it unlikely that “My Boy Jack” was about his lost child.

All of the ‘big hitters’ are represented here … Owen, Gurney, Thomas, Rosenberg, Graves, Blunden … but the choice of poems is interesting. In amongst the ones you expect are less familiar ones and, in the case of Ivor Gurney, beautiful and disturbing poems I’d never even seen before.

In addition, and refreshingly, Kendall has included some less well known – and even virtually unknown (to me, anyway) – poets: David Jones, May Wedderburn Cannan, Margaret Postgate Cole, T P Cameron Wilson … of varying poetic quality but all illuminating and worthy of their place in the collection.

David Jones, in particular, was a revelation to me. I am ashamed to say that he had slipped completely under my radar. This is probably because, as Tim Kendall points out, he’s so hard to anthologize. His masterwork was “In Parenthesis”,  a novel-length ‘writing’ that is part poem, part narrative and described by T S Eliot as a work of genius.

You can hear the silence of it:
You can hear the rat of no-man’s land
rut-out intricacies,
weasel out his patient workings,
scrut, scrut, sscrut,
harrow-out earthly, trowel his cunning paw;
redeem the time of our uncharity, to sap his own amphibious paradise.

In many ways, however, the best is left for last. At the end of the book, as if huddled together for   mutual support, there’s a selection of  Music Hall and Trench Songs – the bawdy, irreverent and satiric songs, so peculiarly British, that buoyed the Tommies’ spirits even as they lay in the freezing mud. In his introduction to this final section, Tim Kendall tells us that Ivor Gurney’s regiment sang “I Want to Go Home” in the midst of heavy bombardment:

I want to go home, I want to go home.
I don’t want to go to the trenches no more,
Where whizzbangs and shrapnel they whistle and roar.
Take me over the sea, where the Alleyman can’t get at me.
Oh my, I don’t want to die, I want to go home.

I want to go home, I want to go home.
I don’t want to visit la Belle France no more,
For oh the Jack Johnsons they make such a roar.
Take me over the sea, where the snipers they can’t get at me.
Oh my, I don’t want to die, I want to go home.

It was not, Gurney admitted, a brave song, ‘but brave men sing it’.

Of all the (many) books I’ve read over the years about the war poets and the poetry of war, I think this one comes the closest to capturing the breadth and depth of that extraordinary burst of creativity engendered by The War to End All Wars. If pushed to recommend that one book of war poetry – I no longer feel I could do it, because this anthology now sits beside The Winter of the World on my bookshelf – as its complement and companion.

Hardback: OUP OXford. 2013. ISBN: 978-0-19-958144-3. 368pp.
Paperback: OUP Oxford. 2014. ISBN: 978-0-19-870320-4. 368pp.
Also in ebook format.

8 comments on “Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology

  1. Christine A
    November 11, 2014
  2. sshaver
    November 11, 2014

    As a writer, I’m wondering why that “I want to go home” seems more unbearably sad than all the other poems (also sad).

  3. Moira
    November 11, 2014

    You aren’t alone. It had exactly the same effect on me. That’s why I quoted it in full. And knowing that they actually sang it, under bombardment, in the trenches …

  4. Moira
    November 11, 2014

    And there’s a childish simplicity about it too, isn’t there? They’d love to just run back home … who wouldn’t? … but they can’t.

  5. Hilary
    November 11, 2014

    Thanks so much for this review, Moira – without it might have thought I already have enough WWI poetry on my shelves, but the thoughtful decisions that have gone into the arrangement of this anthology make it sound essential. And the addition of the trench songs marks it out too.

  6. Jackie
    November 11, 2014

    This sounds like an excellent collection and I’m glad they included so many less known poems. The music hall songs is an interesting touch, and probably more immediate than some of the poems. I cannot imagine singing and shooting simultaneously, there’s a defiance there that is impressive.
    What a perfect book to do on this day.

  7. Helen
    November 14, 2014

    Oh, I’m sold! I was jaded by war poems having overdone some of them at school a good few years back, but the extracts here, and the reminders of some of those names, and your evident enjoyment of the book – they’ve stacked up together and made me want it badly.
    Thank you for re-opening my horizons and encouraging me to add to my list.

  8. Caroline Davies
    September 20, 2015

    Tim Kendall’s book is on my ‘to read’ list so I was interested in your review. Do please read David Jones’ In Parenthesis if you haven’t already. It is a long poem and not the easiest of reads but well woth perserving with.

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