Kevin Saving on
Strange Meetings -The Poets of the Great War
Chatto and Windus, 2010
In this, our age of bastardized, interventionist, (mostly undeclared) wars, it continues to be the voices of the poets from the so-called 'Great War' - World War One - which speak most directly and most trenchantly to us.
Just why this should be so surely prompts enquiry. The generation born in the 1880s and 90s appear to have felt themselves, retrospectively at least, to have been uniquely gifted and inexorably doomed -though the small specimen-sample of three British prime ministers who fought as young men in the trenches (Attlee, Eden and MacMillan) doesn't really proffer much in the way of exceptional ability. The 1914-18 Western Front experience was played out by unprecedentedly large numbers -and within a closely circumscribed physical locale. Perhaps this may have encouraged its pre-eminent testimonies to have come via the scribbled notes of soldier-poets (most of them junior officers) who, if nothing else, were not constantly obliged to 'strike tents' or 're-embus'. More probably, the first fully-industrialised global conflict represented something entirely new in its combination of personal alienation, raw horror and appalling, sustained squalor.
Strange Meetings explores and ponders some of the unacknowledged nexuses between those much -anthologised names (Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg et al) in fifteen separate chapters, plus an epilogue. Many of the leading practitioners knew each other well - possibly not quite the contemporary system of mutually back-slapping grooming and networking, but definitely a distinct, slightly-older first cousin to it. The miniature narratives kick-off with a pre-war breakfast tete-a-tete in sir Edward Marsh's Gray's Inn Rooms (9th July, 1914) between that relative ingenui Siegfried Sassoon and a slightly younger (but already 'established') Rupert Brooke. Over their bacon and Kidneys - served by 'Eddie's house-keeper, Mrs Elgy - a tongue-tied, hero-worshipping Siegfried listens-in as Brooke and another guest, W.H. Davies, discuss just which journal editors currently pay the best rates. Suffusing this brief vignette of Marsh's machiavellian campaign of literary-'fixing' is the unspoken homo-eroticism of all the principals - with the exception of the garrulous, one-legged ex-tramp, Davies.
In another chapter, 'Fighting the Keeper', Ricketts probes Edward Thomas's complicated reaction to the first edition of his friend Brooke's war poetry, evidenced by two concurrent reviews which the former wrote (in June, 1915) following its (posthumous) publication. 'Gathering Swallows' has Thomas and Wilfred Owen in - imagined but plausibly visualised - conversation at Hare Hall camp, Romford, where they are both known to have been stationed in February, 1916. 'Dottyville' tells the better-documented story of Owen's and Sassoon's collaborative friendship at Craiglockart War-Hospital, Summer 1917. It is still, somehow, disconcerting to find Owen (only a year away from his death-in-action, aged 25) making a list of future plans - which quaintly included writing blank-verse plays on 'old welsh themes'. 'At Mrs Colefax's' presents a new 'player', Robert Nichols, giving a poetry reading (in December, 1917) at a society-hostess's private 'bash' (and with T.S.Eliot in a 'walk-on' role). It's seldom remembered now, but of all the war poets it was (the rather 'striving') Nichols who - with the probable exception of Brooke - enjoyed the most substantial, immediate post bellum reputation.
The revelations and reverberations continue well into the post-war years with Sassoon and Edmund Blunden furiously annotating their (review) copies of Robert Graves' Goodbye To All That (in November, 1929). 'Strange Hells' (Summer, 1932) sees Helen (Edward Thomas's widow) visiting Ivor Gurney in 'Stone House' asylum, Dartford. By now deeply enmeshed in what seems to have been a form of paranoid psychosis, Gurney - and his visitor - conduct a heart-rending 'tour' of Ivor's old Gloucestershire haunts, using one of Edward's field maps. Gurney will never physically 'see' these places again, dying of pleurisy and T.B. five years later.
Finally, 'Sacred Intimacies' reconstructs the (only) meeting, in 1964, of the modernist David (In Parenthesis) Jones and the increasingly 'passed over' Sassoon. This seems to have been a curiously tragi-comic affair: Sassoon (patrician, wealthy, reduced to mumbles through anxiety over his newly-fitted false teeth); Jones (half-deaf, hypochondriacal, subsisting on a strange cocktail of medicinal drugs and 'handouts'). The ill-matched pair, each wracked by survivor's guilt, finding themselves unable to discuss their (shared) Roman Catholicism or poetic vocations, were reduced to old-soldier's reminiscences from their very defined vantages as 'Captain' Sassoon and 'Private' Jones. Sassoon, in particular, appears never entirely to have left the trenches behind him.
Strange Meetings has obviously been a labour of love from Ricketts. It painstakingly uncovers long-hidden connections, literary tiffs (and patronages) antipathies, aversions and reconciliations. In its own - perhaps slightly specialised - sphere, it is consistently well-researched and tenderly insightful. I commend it to anyone with an interest in a period which remains 'relevent' to, yet is increasingly 'distant' from, our own. A time when both the poet-witnesses, and the events they described, seem peculiarly out-of-scale.
Kevin Saving © 2011