The BBC and War Poets
The BBC celebrates the First World War and so does not like the English War Poets, who do not celebrate the war. It asks on its website: “Has poetry distorted our view of the war?” indeed, “Have we made a schoolboy error?”
Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon wrote poems depicting in straightforward language the results of gas and bomb attacks on men. Their poems have been part of the Literature syllabus for a long time in England (although apparently not in Northern Ireland) and generations of children have learnt the horrible effects of gas and bombs in WW1. The poems they read described the effects of war but do not mention, ‘sacrifices made for a purpose’ ‘fighting for a just cause’ or any such notions. Pupils have been brought up to think that war is horrible, without qualification or justification. And ‘many of us are still stuck with this skewed view of the war’ says the BBC.
Other poets did describe the death of soldiers, (although not as vividly), but in order to blame the enemy, or to glorify their fate. Owen and Sassoon did not. Whole generations have been spoiled by anti-war sentiment; the BBC intends to remedy this error.
The BBC commissioned Ian McMillan, the poet and broadcaster with a trademark Barnsley accent heard from time to time on BBC Radio 4, to write the web page “Has poetry distorted our view of the war?”in the BBC guide to WW1. McMillan does not say that Owen and Sassoon were wrong; instead he tries to diminish their importance as poets and to belittle their message. McMillan used to be a victim of the anti-war indoctrination himself but he has seen the light: ‘I have always been a big fan of Wilfred Owen’s poetry, but going through this journey [presumably writing about WW1 for the BBC] I’ve realised that Owen’s strong and heartfelt reaction to World War One was just one of many poetic responses to the conflict.’
His arguments are weak, and avoid addressing the actual content of the poems directly.
Wilfred Owen’s poems, says McMillan, are not autobiographical: Owen did not himself experience a gas attack. ‘Although Dulce et Decorum Est is written from the poet’s point of view, it’s important to remember it is a work of fiction’. Setting aside the question of whether you have to have experienced something before you can write about it, is ‘work of fiction’ the correct phrase? Owen did not invent gas attacks, he saw them. Owen was at the front in the trenches and saw all there was to see there. He described violent death and died himself violently, one week before the end of the war. There is something unpleasant about accusing him of writing poems that were not ‘autobiographical’.
Then, continues Ian McMillan, Owen wrote his poems while being ill with shell shock. ‘Owen wrote his anti-jingoistic poem as part of his therapy to overcome shellshock but his was just one, very personal, reaction to war’. McMillan does not want to shock the reader, possibly a teacher or a pupil, by saying directly that jingoism is good. Instead he implies there must be something wrong with the poem because it was written in a hospital for shell-shocked soldiers, so by someone not in possession of all their faculties and unable to think objectively. We must feel protective in a patronizing way for this unfortunate soldier, writing poetry in order to get better. Unfortunately for McMillan the poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is an objective description of the result of a gas attack, with the moral that if we had seen it with our own eyes, we would not repeat the jingoistic lie that it is sweet and honorable to die for our country. Nothing could be more down to earth and pedestrian. McMillan would have to show, rather than insinuate, that there is something unbalanced about the sentiments expressed.
Belittling views as penned by the mentally ill is not new. When Siegfried Sassoon wrote his anti-war letter, published in the Times on 31 July 1917, he was dismissed as ‘mentally unstable’ and suffering from shell shock. He was not.
There are a lot more poets than those two, continues McMillan, and especially women poets. ‘While Owen wrote powerful poetry, he was just one of 2,225 men and women from Britain and Ireland who had poems published during World War One.’ Indeed one of the most prestigious Dublin publishing houses, counting Yeats among their authors, Maunsell and Co, in 1915 published poems by Constance Powell.
Let us have excerpts from her production.
The Song Of The Kaiser
(With apologies to Hood)
With fingers in Belgium blood!
With garments all stained and red
The Kaiser sat in his robe of shame—
“I am the War-god”, he said.
“Kill, kill, kill!
Plunder, ravage, fight”—
And loud in a voice the world to fill—
He sang the song of his might.
And Warriors All!
Warriors all for Ireland’s sake!
Whatever our party or creed,
The men who will fight for the truth and the right,
Are men of the Irish breed!
Or the Slacker:
He says his country doesn’t really want him.
[…]His mother is the saddest thing on earth,
She defends him when she can,
But he’s proved he’s not a man,
And she wishes she had buried him the hour she gave him birth.
The Rhyme Of “The Widow’s Mite”
The widow was sad, as sad could be,
But “England is worth my best”, said she.
And so, brave soul! kept nothing back,
But gave her all, her one son Jack!
Hundreds more women penned similar efforts, which have been collected in “Women’s Poetry of the First World War” by Nosheen Khan, University Press of Kentucky, 1988.
Khan notes that many of the women who wrote lines intended as poetry were not poets: ‘most of the [women] writers were amateur versifiers who had probably never thought of writing verse before and in whom the fire of creativity may not have struck save for the war.’ And that ‘viewed as a whole, the writing is decidedly uneven in quality. It is often marred by the scars of haste, of hysteria and of the melodramatic.’ Khan does not explain the hysteria. Like McMillan, Khan ignores war propaganda, source of hysteria and a deluge of bad verse. The Times said at the time that ‘they received as many as a 100 metrical essays in a single day’. Metrical essays, not poems.
England’s vital interests were not engaged in the European conflict. The population felt no vital interest at stake, and had to be whipped up to a frenzy of hatred of the Germans. What did Constance Powell know of the Kaiser before the papers told her he should be hanged?
The poets Sassoon and Owen, says McMillan, were ‘A select group of well-educated soldier officers’. The intention being to marginalize them and to appeal presumably to a dislike of upper class men. The ‘common man poet’ McMillan puts forward as an alternative is ‘Woodbine Willie’, nearer to the working class. “Other verses submitted to trench magazines reveal how soldiers also used humour and anti-German feeling to cope with the conflict. Much poetry written on the front line, such as by the poet Padre Woodbine Willie, was about everyday concerns like where the next rum ration was coming from.”
Here is an example of a poem by Woodbine Willie:
The Sorrow of God
So I thought as that long-‘aired atheist
Were nobbat a silly sod
For ‘ow did e’ ‘count for my brussels sprouts
If ‘e didn’t believe i’ God.
But it ain’t the same out ‘ere, ye know.
[…]Just look at that little boy corporal there,
Such a fine upstanding lad,
Wi’ a will ov ‘is own and a way ov ‘is own.
And a smile ov ‘is own, ‘e ‘ad.
An hour ago he was bustin’ wi’ life,
Wi’ ‘is actin’ and foolin’ and fun;
‘E were simply the life on us all, ‘e were.
Now look what the blighters ‘a done.
Look at ‘im lyin’ there all ov a ‘eap,
Wi’ the blood soaken over ‘is ‘ead.
Like a beautiful picture spoiled by a fool,
A bundle o’ nothin’ — dead.
McMillan was trying to say that less socially elevated poets penned efforts that chimed in better with the ordinary soldier, by touching on everyday concerns, like Brussel sprouts and the existence of God. Woodbine Willie was Reverend Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy, educated at Leeds Grammar School and Trinity College, Dublin (First class degree in Classics and Divinity). He did not move in upper class circles. Does this make his poetry better or worse? The answer is in the poems themselves. The social origin of a poet must be irrelevant to the beauty of his verse.
Owen wrote of the most awful moments in war; McMillan reminds us that there were other moments. This is like saying that a poet writing about the happiest moments of a love affair is not authentic because he doesn’t mention what they had to eat.
But McMillan does not seem concerned with the quality of the poems. He seems to think that verse published during the war is valuable in itself, whatever its quality. This alters the point of view; we are no longer discussing the verse, only its value as a historical document. But then poems become a subject not for the English literature lesson, but for the history lesson.
We now come to the content of the poems, the view they express. ‘A select group of well-educated soldier officers, including Wilfred Owen, came to view the war as one of pity and horror. This was a minority view but expressed through powerful and well-written poetry.”
There is the obvious point that you can be in a minority and be right. The other obvious point is that to view the war ‘as one of pity and horror’ is not at all a minority view. What partisan of WW1 celebrations does not decry ‘the horrors of war’? When 20 000 a day died everyday for days on end, as happened, the normal reaction was one of ‘pity and horror’; there is something wrong with people who regard this in any other way. It was not a ‘personal’ reaction but a near universal one. Who would admit to not feeling it?
Owen and Sassoon were not just a minority; their view was ‘one of many poetic responses to the conflict.’ McMillan here changes the subject. He refuses to engage in the debate of whether the Poets were right or wrong. He says their view was personal and implies that all poetic responses are equally valid.
Since he does not go into the argument of right and wrong, we must supply it now.
There is certainly more to war than events that inspire pity and horror. The BBC WW1 website mentions in that context the greater opportunities for sex, which they illustrate ‘diplomatically’ with a photo of German soldiers with their arms around Polish women.
The Irish nationalist and deputy editor of the Manchester Guardian, C.E. Montague, explained the positive character of war in more general terms. With war, he said, men’s lives ‘had undergone an immense simplification’. Life at war became ‘almost solely physical’. Life was ‘all salt and tingling with vicissitudes of simple bodily discomfort and pleasure, fatigue and rest, risk and the ceasing of risk; a heaven after the flatness, the tedium, the cloying security….’ [the stories told by soldiers] ‘tasted of life, the inexhaustible game and adventure’. People ‘felt, irresistibly, […] that at the moment the war was the central thing in the whole world, and that it was unbearable not to be at the centre of things.’ (Quotations from Disenchantment, 1922)
Sassoon did not write about the exhilaration of war, although he felt it himself at times. The day before a big battle, 7 April 1917 he wrote in his diary:
‘The fact remains that if I had the choice between England tomorrow and the battle, I would choose the battle without hesitation. Why on earth is one such a fool as to be pleased at the prospect? I can’t understand it. Last year I thought it was because I had never been through it before. But my feeling of quiet elation and absolute confidence now is something even stronger than last summer’s passionate longing for death and glory.” He noted that the men under his command also felt positive on the eve of the battle: “For the men it is a chance of blighty and ‘anything for a change.’”
In a similar vein he explained in his semi-autobiographical “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer” :
“Of course there’s a lot of physical discomfort to be put up with, and the unpleasant sights seem to get worse every year; but apart from being shelled and so on, I must say I’ve often felt extraordinarily happy even in the trenches. Out there it’s just one thing after another, and one soon forgets the bad times; it’s probably something to do with being in the open air so much and getting such lot of exercise… It’s only when one gets away from it that one begins to realise how stupid and wasteful it all is.”
Reactions to the sight of violent death are varied and not everyone feels pity and horror. McMillan does not say what other reactions are possible (Fascination? Joy? Rage?), and which reaction you would be ashamed to admit to. Sassoon mentions the most common reaction: forget as soon as possible.
Bringing up the bad times and the unpleasant sights, during the war, not after, is what you do if you want to point out how stupid and wasteful it all is.
We would be surprised if the battle of Leningrad had inspired poems like Sassoon’s and Owen’s. The Russians then were fighting for survival, and there was no question of counting the cost of the means employed to survive. France does not have ‘war poets’. France fought for the removal of German troops from French territory. The war in 1914-1918 in England was a war of choice, an intervention, not a matter of survival, unless you mean survival of commercial supremacy. The aims of the war were vague, e.g. ‘crushing Prussian militarism’. This is why Sassoon and Owen could write as they did. It is false to say just that ‘they came to view the war as one of pity and horror’; the truth is that their poems implicitly ask the question ‘what is it for?’ and ignore the propaganda answers. Indeed some of their poems were explicitly a reaction against propaganda.
The BBC is therefore uneasy about the War Poets. Establishment figures are uneasy about the war poets. Jeremy Paxman thinks they stop us from understanding the war, “I think that the idea that the whole thing was a conspiracy to throw away young lives is perpetuated by the poets, and actually there’s much more to it than that.” (Speech in Dubai, 11 March, 2014). Max Hastings in the Times ‘Four page guide to WW1 Poetry’ 17 March, 2014, writes that the poets tell us about the horror of war, but nothing of the serious reality of the times: ‘it has nothing to tell us about the realities that government and generals faced in 1914-18. Sassoon’s political view was that he war was so dreadful that one should simply pack up and give it to the other side.’ Neither Paxman nor Hastings present the view of the poets fairly: the Poets neither thought in terms of conspiracy nor of giving up.
They wrote of the horrors of war at the time of the war, not afterwards. Obviously their poems were not publicized at the time, they were hardly suitable war effort material. War propaganda supplied the war aims for the population in apocalyptic terms. It was so intense and vicious it could never be undone; a time never came when it would be acceptable to admit the monstrosity of the demonization of Germany. The publication of the war poets was the nearest thing England came to presenting a non propaganda view of the war.
This is what the establishment does not like about the war poets: their poems lead readers to ask the question: What was it for? Why did all these men die so horribly? Why were ‘thousands of lives uselessly sacrificed, including some of the most precious’ as C.P. Scott put it (Diary entry 23 may 1915). McMillan probably thinks that is just one question among many you could ask about the war. The BBC and the establishment distort the views of the Poets or attack them with despicably weak and evasive arguments/innuendos—not autobiographical, mentally ill, minority view, one view among many—that alone means that the Poets’ message is not welcome among the war celebrationists: they disturb by asking the still unanswered question, why did Britain join the war? Even if the reader does not ask the question, and stays just with the vivid impression of the horrors of war, and feels a healthy disgust for war, why should the BBC be uneasy about that? Does it want a jingoistic population again?