Strange Meetings: The Poets of the First World War, by Harry Ricketts, Chatto, RRP£20, 278 pages
The first world war poets have been popular ever since they were published during that war and have been frequently anthologised and discussed in critical books and biographies.
Harry Ricketts has had the original idea of combining discussion of their work with their friendships. He begins with Edward – or “Eddie” – Marsh, Winston Churchill’s private secretary at the Admiralty, who held famous literary breakfasts when his housekeeper served up kidneys and bacon and China tea.
Marsh is vividly characterised, stroking his winged eyebrows. He wears a monocle, is in his early forties and talks in a soft, squeaky voice. His breakfast guests tended to be young, good-looking men from privileged backgrounds, although he was no snob: the working-class Isaac Rosenberg was one of his protégés. Marsh was a celibate homosexual and liked taking off the boots of his young male friends. During his breakfasts, new poems were read, then Marsh would set off for the Admiralty, where Churchill once told him “You are a good little boy and I am very fond of you.”
On July 9 1914, there were three breakfast guests: the Autobiography of a Super-Tramp poet WE Davies, Siegfried Sassoon and the painter Paul Nash. They had come to meet Rupert Brooke, who was staying with Marsh. Together, he and Marsh had the idea of an anthology of Georgian poetry, which became a bestseller.
Brooke died on April 23 1915 from septicaemia, and Edward Thomas reviewed his collection 1914 and Other Poems and more or less praised it. Thomas was a freelance reviewer, and turned out potboilers. He befriended Robert Frost, who was then in England, and already greatly admired. At the age of 37, Thomas enlisted and began writing poems, which Frost had encouraged him to do.
A friendship developed between Sassoon, Robert Graves and Charles Sorley. Ricketts says that out of this friendship Sassoon was inspired to write his first realistic anti-war poem “In the Pink”.
Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen also became friends – they both served in The Artists’ Rifles regiment. Alertly, Ricketts shows them in conversation: “There is a pause. Owen lights a cigarette; Thomas taps his pipe, reluctant to lose the opportunity. Owen starts to recite favourite passages from Keats’s poems, many of which he clearly knows by heart.”
Ricketts now turns to Ivor Gurney, who was influenced by Walt Whitman and who died in a mental hospital after the war. He was an uneasy soldier, and his sergeant-major told him: “I’m afraid we’ll never make a soldier of you.”
Owen and Sassoon met in Craiglockhart War Hospital, where Sassoon was struck by Owen’s “charming honest smile”. Owen was suffering shell-shock. Sassoon was there because he had issued a statement against the war.
Isaac Rosenberg, whose Russian Jewish father was a pacifist, joined up, but said he was “doing the most criminal thing a man can do”. Many of his fellow soldiers were anti-Semitic.
He wrote one of the finest war poems, “Break of Day in the Trenches”, which was published in Poetry Chicago in 1916, after his death. The poem begins with an image of the “cosmopolitan” rat – ie the Jew – and ends with an arresting image of poppies: “Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins / Drop, and are ever dropping, / But mine in my ear is safe – / Just a little white with the dust.”
This is a sardonic, unillusioned poem, which wittily and stoically confronts the trench experience. On April 1 1916, Rosenberg was killed in battle.
This fascinating book gives a realistic and very human account of the lives and works of these brave poets, although Ricketts could have discussed the poems he quotes in more detail.
Tom Paulin is the author of ‘The Secret Life of Poets’ (Faber)