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Wartime Voices

Gerald Dawe

The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem, by Oliver Tearle, Bloomsbury, 200 pp, ISBN. 978-350027015

After the deluge of books, documentaries and exhibitions, conferences, commemorations and public events to mark the hundredth anniversary of the conclusion of World War I there is something affirming in returning to texts of poems written just before, during and somewhat after the mammoth events which shook European society to its very core.

Oliver Tearle has done a good and timely job on bringing his reader back into the micro-climate of the poetry produced at the time by some of the twentieth century giants such as TS Eliot and Ezra Pound and their lesser known (today) contemporaries, including Ford Madox Ford (Antwerp, 1915), Hope Mirrlees (Paris: A Poem, 1920), Richard Aldington, (A Fool I’ the Forest: A Phantasmagoria (1925) – from As You Like It: “A fool, a fool! I met a fool i’ the forest, / A motley fool; a miserable world!”) and Nancy Cunard, (Parallax, 1925).

It is a brave choice because I am not sure this work would be that well-known or read outside academic circles. But working along the seams of historical reality and cultural assumptions, Tearle finds an accessible route to highlight the key critical point that neither The Waste Land or Hugh Selwyn Mauberley are without precedent or poetic parallels in the first three decades of the last century. It is his way of finding the links between what the war produced as social and political reality and the vulnerable places poets found to structurally and aesthetically inhabit that often terrible truth which makes this study well worth reading, in spite of some treading of water in the rehearsal of argument.

This is Tearle connecting the big picture of displacement with the effort of Ford Madox Ford to render what had been going on beyond the zones of trench warfare during the early part of the war:

Ford’s ‘Antwerp’ also prefigures The Waste Land in focussing on the fact that the war had displaced and uprooted vast numbers of people from their homes: section VI of ‘Antwerp’ depicts Belgian refugees in London. Some 250,000 refugees fled the country and came to the capital following the invasion.

He then goes on to quote these lines from the poem:

A great crowd, all black that hardly whispers aloud.
Surely, that is a dead woman – a dead mother!
She has a dead face;
She is dressed all in black;
She wanders to the bookstall and back,
At the back of the crowd;
And back again and again back,
She sways and wanders.

In sensing his way through various poems published during the war, Tearle catches the inner resonances which poets shared, listening in, so to speak, on each other’s work as poets do, sometimes consciously, at other times almost against their own instincts. Certainly, WB Yeats had “issues” with Wilfred Owen, whom he famously cast adrift in his controversial edition of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, but in Tearle’s reading the situation is never that simple when the sound-system of the poem is taken into account. (A para or partial rhyme means simply echoes between words with the same pattern of consonants but different vowels while homorhyme means all parts have the same rhythm.)

Another poem that would pave the way for Eliot’s vision of waste and apocalypse is Yeats’s “The Second Coming” (1919), which also uses homorhyme, as well as deploying the pararhymes that Wilfred Owen had used in his war poems.

Yeats, along with the example and influence of Joyce’s Ulysses, are the two Irish writers who feature in the study, which may be an opportunity missed bearing in mind the close relationship, both personal and literary, between Richard Aldington and Thomas MacGreevy. The latter’s Poems could well be viewed as a post-WWI sequence of poems to be placed alongside MacGreevy’s short studies of Aldington and TS Eliot, inscribed with his experience of war at the front. This is particularly noteworthy when Tearle draws attention to the largely forgotten and for many years neglected Hope Mirrlees:

Virginia Woolf described Hope Mirrlees’s Paris: A Poem as ‘a very obscure, indecent, and brilliant poem’, while Julia Briggs called it ‘modernism’s lost masterpiece, a work of extraordinary energy and intensity, scope and ambition, written in a confidently experimental and avant-garde style’.

MacGreevy also fits centrally into an important strand of the study in regard to the important non-English influences, particularly French poets, which Tearle sees at play across the generation of poets he is studying, including the indebtedness of Paris to Apollinaire, Cocteau, Cendrars and to “two key literary influences”:

The first is ‘Zone’, Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem about a journey through the French capital over the course of one day, first published in … 1912. The second is Ulysses, which began serialisation in the Little Review in 1918 and, famously, charts the wanderings of Leopold Bloom around Dublin in the course of one day.

Joyce pops up again in the chapter on Nancy Cunard’s Parallax and in his parody of The Waste Land (“Hurry up, Joyce, it’s time”) sent to their mutual friend Harriet Shaw Weaver in August 1925. His debunking of the grand statement is typical (“Midwinter soused us coming over Le Mans / Our inn at Niort was the Grape of Burgundy”) for a man who when asked what he had done in the Great War responded that he wrote Ulysses. In the background too Beckett makes a very brief appearance – part of that Irish “modernist” trio of Joyce, MacGreevy and himself – having received a copy of Parallax from Cunard in 1930 and, according to Tearle, Beckett “was still recalling the poem and wrote to Cunard: ‘I want to read your Parallax again and the Battersea or thereabouts gulls skewered to the wind”’ in 1956.

One of the perpetual questions that WW1 throws up in terms of political but also literary history is when did it “end”, if in fact it did “end”? Was it not the case that the war was temporarily resolved but under the surface as European life tried to return to some degree of equilibrium further and more deep-seated problems were beginning to reassert themselves, specifically in those countries which had “lost” the war (Germany, Austria) but also those such as Great Britain and further afield in the Commonwealth, where issues of migration, economic turbulence and political stability looked set to undermine the passing sense of victory. The sheer volume of suffering and the trauma of what had been experienced by ordinary men and women at the front, to say nothing of the sense of loss and grief of those who had sons and fathers slaughtered in the industrial carnage of the war, all these unresolved matters could not be repressed or “atoned for” by national commemorations, not for long.

In a fascinating chapter “A Poem without a Hero”, echoing the great Russian poet Anna Ahkmatova’s poem of the same name, Tearle covers deftly some substantial critical ground. Quoting the distinguished Cambridge scholar Trudi Tate – “Wars continued after the war, in Poland, Albania, Greece, Turkey, and elsewhere, and the peace settlements raised new sets of problems which contributed to the rise of fascism and another war in 1939”, Tearle makes a telling point of distinction between Mirrlees’s Paris and the London of Eliot’s famous poem:

Where Mirrlees’s Paris, set at the time of the Peace Conference, celebrates the peace that had followed the war, The Waste Land, written a little later after the full ramifications of the peace talks became clear, is haunted by an awareness that peace has not come so easily in Europe, and there is no easy way for ‘war’ to be ended and ‘peace’ to be established.

In identifying one of the important attributes Eliot considered primary in his reading of Dante – “the quality of surprise which Poe declared to be essential to poetry” ‑ Tearle brings back into focus at least two long poems which have drifted off the literary map. Certainly, Nancy Cunard and Hope Mirrlees present theatrical opportunities as well. In so doing the writer offers his own kind of surprise at how engaging the work of Aldington, Mirrlees and Cunard remains, more than worthy additions to whichever “canon” of the poetry of war we wish to consider. I was taken by how, in his conclusion that “the poetry of Auden, Jones and others would take the modernist long poem in new directions”, the names of several Irish poets could join the list without distortion of special pleading. I am thinking of Sheila Wingfield, Beat Drum, Beat Heart (1946), the unavailable poems of Seán Jennet and the challenging technique of Brian Coffey’s Death of Hektor (1979). As Oliver Tearle makes abundantly clear in the final sentence of his convincing and thorough monograph, “Just as other poets would learn from Eliot and take his experiment in very different directions, so others helped to create a new kind of poetry, even a new language for poetry, out of the wreckage of the First World War.”


Gerald Dawe’s new poetry collection The Last Peacock is published in September by the Gallery Press. He edited Earth Voices Whispering: An Anthology of Irish War Poetry 1914-1945 (Blackstaff Press 2008) and with Eoin O’Brien has co-edited Ethna MacCarthy Poems, forthcoming from the Lilliput Press in October.



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