Extract from The Lattermath
What of the lattermath to this hoar Spring?
Edward Thomas (‘It was upon...’)
In his 1965 review of Men Who March Away, Ted Hughes described the First World War as our ‘national ghost’ and France as ‘England’s dream world, a previously unguessed fantasy dimension, where the social oppressions and corruptions slipped into nightmare gear’. It is true that the events of 1914-18 have obsessed English writers and writers in English more enduringly even than the inhumanities of the Second World War. In this brief chapter I wish to alert readers to the work of those poets who have put this war near the centre of their preoccupations and others who have turned to it and produced memorable individual poems.
Ted Hughes (1930-1998) could have been speaking of himself when he suggested that we are haunted by the Great War. It has been central to Hughes’s poetry since his first collection, The Hawk in the Rain, whose last few pages introduce three poems which look back to that era: ‘Bayonet Charge’, with its characteristic nightmare opening ‘Suddenly he awoke and was running—‘; the triptych of sonnets, ‘Griefs for Dead Soldiers’, which should be better known for its attention to a bereaved wife’s view of events:‘She cannot build her sorrow into a monument/And walk away from it’; and the well known ‘Six Young Men’, one of many contemporary poems about the war which use a photograph as a starting point. Hughes was fascinated by the fact that Wilfred Owen carried photographs of battlefield horrors with him to show those at home who seemed to him too complacent and he had a plan to exhibit enlargements of them in London. ‘Wilfred Owen’s Photographs’ from Lupercal (1960) indirectly refers to this. Hughes suggests in his review that Owen’s poems are ‘partly substitutes or verbal parallels for those photographs’.
Hughes’ father had occasionally told stories about the war when he was young, but became increasingly silent, a fact which pervades the poems about him: ‘My father sat in his chair recovering/From the four-year mastication by gunfire and mud,/Body buffeted wordless...’ (‘Out’, Wodwo (1967)). ‘My post-war father was so silent/He seemed to be listening’ (‘Dust as We Are’) This latter poem is from Wolfwatching (1989), the book in which Hughes broke his own extended silence about his father and turned back from mythological topics to human ones. What haunted William Hughes was the knowledge that he was one of only seventeen in his regiment who had survived Gallipoli, as suggested in ‘The Last of the 1st/5th Lancashire Fusiliers’, subtitled ‘a Souvenir of the Gallipoli Landings’. The facts about trench warfare came more from Ted’s uncle Walt, who is also commemorated in Wolfwatching. But as Elaine Feinstein points out in her life of the poet, ‘Men from every part of the valley had died in those battlefields’, and this truth shadows Remains of Elmet (1979), with its evocation of ‘First, mills and steep wet cobbles/Then cenotaphs’ of ‘the melting corpses of farms/The hills’ skulls peeled by the dragging climate’ and ‘A land naked now as a wound/That the sun swabs and dabs//Where the miles of agony are numbness/And harebell and heather a euphoria.’ Interestingly, in the light of his remarks about the equivalent power of photography, these poems first appeared alongside a series of dark, brooding monochrome images of the Calder Valley taken by Fay Godwin.
It is this capacity to inject a scene or a story with the imagery and emotions of the First World War that is so typical of Hughes. Even the bitterly sardonic mood of his controversial sequence Crow seems indebted to the period and individual poems about animals draw their imagery ‘red in tooth and claw’ from it. One of the best is ‘Tiger-Psalm’ from the collection Moortown (1979), which contrasts the way a tiger kills (‘Does not kill. The tiger blesses with a fang.’) with the methods of the First World War, taking Owen’s ‘rapid rattle’ to its logical conclusion and making the words sound like something pattering out of a computer, a cold, calculating abuse of the brain’s left lobe. In his somewhat obscure Laureate poem, ‘A Masque for Three Voices’, the Ted Hughes confesses, as he writes of how ‘Passchendaele and Somme disturb me more’ (than Agincourt or Trafalgar): ‘I only know what ghosts breathe in my breath – /The shiver of their battles my Shibboleth.’
The other contemporary poet who has returned compulsively to themes of the First World War is the Ulsterman, Michael Longley (born 1939), who even felt able to gather sixty of his war poems into Cenotaph of Snow (Enitharmon , 2003). In introducing it, he calls himself ‘a non-combatant drawn to the subject of war’ by the fact that his father fought in both the First and Second World Wars, by his own reverence for ‘Owen, Rosenberg, Sassoon, Sorley, Blunden, Thomas, Jones and their successors of 1939-1918’, by a love of Homer’s ‘most powerful of all war poems’, the Iliad, and by seeing his native Ulster ‘disfigured for thirty years by fratricidal violence’. He does not mention the influence of his wife, the formidable critic Edna Longley, who has made the poetry of war a special study, writing particularly persuasively on Edward Thomas (see Poetry in the Wars and her edition of Thomas’s prose, A Language Not to be Betrayed).
As with Hughes, Longley’s best known poems of the Great War focus on his father, ‘a belated casualty’ poisoned by ‘lead traces’, ‘dying for King and Country, slowly’. ‘In Memoriam’ from his first collection is less well known than ‘Wounds’ from his second. This has been much anthologised, a poem impressive for its candour as well as for its bold shifts of perspective. Again, the memory is set unreeling by images that appear like photographs:
Here are two pictures from my father’s head—
I have kept them like secrets until now:
And they are as shocking as anything Wilfred Owen might have wanted to show, because here is ineradicable bigotry and hatred of an enemy who is not in the opposite trench at all, and has (to the poet’s father’s ‘admiration and bewilderment’) nothing to do with what is about to kill these young men:
First, the Ulster Division at the Somme
Going over the top with ‘Fuck the Pope!’
‘No Surrender!’: a boy about to die,
Screaming ‘Give ‘em one for the Shankhill!’
The second picture is equally bizarre in its way, of a ‘London-Scottish padre’ adjusting kilts in ‘a landscape of dead buttocks’. The poem then shifts to the victims and volunteers on the latterday battlefield in Ulster: young men once again, ‘teenage soldiers, bellies full of/Bullets’ and ‘a shivering boy’ who apologises weakly to the children and ‘a bewildered wife’ as he shoots her husband in his carpet-slippers.
Other Longley poems remembering the First War include family anecdotes (‘Master of Ceremonies’ and ‘Second Sight’) but there are some which take a broader, longer look as in ‘The War Graves’:
...The headstones wipe out the horizon like a blizzard
And we can see no farther than the day they died,
As though all of them died together on the same day
And the war was that single momentous explosion...
(from the Weather in Japan, 2000)
This (for Longley) long poem culminates in a consideration of graves of the poets of the war and there are many other shorter ones that focus on these writers that he so reveres: ‘The War Poets’, ‘No Man’s Land: in memory of Isaac Rosenberg’, and several about Edward Thomas ranging from two from the mid-seventies in Man Lying on a Wall (‘Edward Thomas’s War Diary’ and ‘Mole’) to a group in his recent collection The Weather in Japan: ‘The Moustache’ compares Thomas in his attempts ‘to cover up/His aesthete’s features’ with Longley’s own father ‘aged twenty, in command of a company/Who, because most of them shaved only once a week/And some not at all, were known as Longley’s Babies.’ Another, titled simply ‘Poetry’, picks up on some of those coincidences and synchronicities which are so fascinating in the lives of the period. ‘Poetry’ relates unaffectedly (in fourteen unrhymed lines) how ‘when he was billeted in a ruined house in Arras’ Blunden found what he thought might be Thomas’s own copy of his book about Keats, and how ‘When Thomas Hardy died his widow gave Blunden/As a memento of many visits to Max Gate/His treasured copy of Edward Thomas’s Poems.’