Sunday, 4 December 2016

Sassoon re-appraised by World War 2 Serving Poets

                                                    A study in influence 

                                               Painting of Sassoon by Glyn Warren Philpot

'Silent Service'-Siegfried Sassoon

Now, mulltifold, let Britain's patient power
Be proven within us for the world to see,
None are exempt from service in this hour:
And vanquished in ourselves we dare not be.
  Now, for a sunlit future, we can show
  The clenched resolved endurance that defies
  Daemons in dark,-and toward that future go
  With earth's defended freedom in our eyes,
  In every separate soul let courage shine-
 A kneeling angel holding faith's front -line

 May 23rd, 1940

                                'Silent Service' seems to be so  lacking in passion compared with Sasoon's earlier work. Especially considering the poet's status. Sassoon was one of the most rated war poets of World War one, and his poetry,  semi-autobiographical prose, and his 1917 declaration against the continuation of World War 1 must rank him high in those who have contributed to the popular 'Disenchantment' view of World War one :  The view that either Britain should have remained neutral or the cost of the victory was simply far too high in terms of casualties, which remains widely held today.

Yet Sassoon as a writer  was simply ill prepared for World War 2 . His prose writing at the time was charming and nostalgic such as 'The Old Century and Seven More Years' (1938). Sassoon wrote few poems about World War 2 that were ever published, whilst the ones that emerged are largely ignored.  This was not the case of all World War 1 poets. The World War 2 poetry of both Herbert Read, H.D., Constance Renshaw, and Vera Brittain are still anthologised in collections relating to either World War. Robert Graves established  quite a creative rapport with Alun Lewis, Edmund Blunden with Keith Douglas, so it was also  possible for a World War 1 poet to connect with younger serving poets.

There are reasons why Sassoon was out of sync at the start of World War 2. He was living the life of a country gentleman in Wiltshire being faced with the prospect of having to take in evacuees. His marriage was failing, he had started to back away from his public  endorsement of the Peace Pledge Union and simply let his membership dues lapse when World War 2 broke out.

Yet Sassoon's long term reputation was to survive : I was  lucky enough to hear a programme originally broadcast for Sassoon's 80th birthday ( 8th September 1966)  by BBC radio 'Home Service from the West'  in 1966, via the British Library Sound Archives. Presented by World War 2 serving poet Vernon Scannell, who praised Sassoon

It was the war poets and particularly Sassoon who gave us the key to the world our fathers had known. 

Vernon Scannell 's father , James Bain, served during World War one ; I've not managed to find the exact details of his service. Scannell's childhood and youth were blighted by his father's violence .

Fellow poet Charles Causley contributed to said programme.

 But in the work of Sassoon, I suddenly say that by using common speech in some magical way, he turned into the memorable and the most moving accounts of what really happened to people in war. He enabled us, somehow or other, to take part in the Second World War without the terrible possibility of disillusionment which crippled so many millions of people in the First World War. I think he made it clear more than historian certainly more than any journalist and most certainly more than any politician. It was the poet who said quite clearly what the score was. 

Causley's father served in the 2nd Wessex Division of the Royal Army Driver Service corp, contracted T.B. as a consequence of  phosphorous gas, and invalided out of the Forces in 1919. He never recovered his health and died on 31st March 1924, when Charles Causley was five years old.

Vernon Scannell and Sassoon met only once, but Charles Causley visited Sassoon a number of times at his home  in the 1950's and 1960's.

                     Furthermore, a collection of Sassoon's recent poetry with the title 'Octave' was published to coincide with Sassoon's 80th birthday. This was funded via an appeal backed by a whole range of poets including : John Masefield, Edmund Blunden, C.Day Lewis,  Roy Fuller, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, R.S.Thomas. Charles Causely wrote the introduction with more praise to Sassoon.

Above all living writers, his were the poems that first leapt at me from the page. After I had left school, and the advancing shadow of the Second World War steadily darkened the nineteen-thirties, Sassoon's were the poems that I learnt by heart ....

Welsh poet Vernon Watkins, served with RAF intelligence in World War 2 and stated in ;

Siegfried Sassoon is the one poet emerging from the First World War to become the prophet of the Second..

 One less enthusiastic voice was that of Royal Navy serving poet Alan Ross (1922-2007), writing in his autobiography , 'Blindfold Games' about the poetry that he was reading in the late 1930's

Sassoon and Blunden, as once Rupert Brooke, fulfilled one kind of need, but their later poetry seemed archaic and dull compared to Auden. 

Yes perhaps Ross was being too harsh. Andrew Marr in his 'We British -The Poetry of a People' highlighted the impact of World War 1 poetry.

In short, 1915 dragged English poetry from 1852 to about 1950 in one angry, impatient lurch. The war changed almost everything about Britain, and that included its relationship to poetry.

Alan Ross was possibly the greatest  'War at Sea' poet. He hated the sea, which is not surprising after serving on Arctic Convoy JW51B at the end of 1942. Ross had the ability to evoke the horror and claustrophobia of sea warfare set in a hostile and bleak natural environment. Yes also the talent to record the conversation of sailors of all ranks. Vernon Scannell highlighted this fact in his work on World War 2 poetry 'Not Without Glory' by noticing the influence of Sassoon and Owen in Ross' poem 'Survivors'.

But soon they joke, easy and warm,
As men will who have died once
Yet somehow were able to find their way-
Muttering this was not included in their pay.

Later, sleepless at night, the brain spinning
With cracked images, they won't forget
The confusion and the oily dead,
Not yet the casual knack of living. 

And this is the key to Sassoon's legacy to World War 2 poetry. He may not have managed to write striking World War 2 poetry, but this genre could not escape his influence.

Sources :
'Programme to mark Siegfried Sassoon's 80th Birthday ' BBC Home Service broadcast 9th September 1966.'  British Library Sound Server Jukebox  T8557,
'Not Without Glory-Poets of the Second World War'  Vernon Scannell ,Woburn Press, 1976
' Vernon Watkins on Dylan Thomas and Other Poets & Poetry, selected by Gwen Watkins and Jeff Towns'
Parthian, 2013,
'We British-The Poetry of a People', Andrew Marr, Fourth Estate, 2015.

Monday, 28 November 2016

The Scottish World War 2 Poets- part one

                              The Scottish World War 2 Poets and the Desert

"There are many dead in the brutish desert
     who lie uneasy
among the scrub in this landscape of half-wit
stunted ill-will. For the dead land is insatiate
and necrophilious . The sand is blowing about still.
And sleep now. Sleep here the sleep of the dust." 

From the First Elegy of 'Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica'
Hamish Henderson.

                                                      Thanks to Boing Boing net : Image of WW2 plane found in desert

World War 2 followed the Scottish Renaissance of 1920s and 1930's, a new Scottish cultural  awareness in poetry and fiction writing, particularly emphasising national identity, folklore and language. In such a background the Scottish National Party was founded in 1934.

The North African 'Desert War'  involved a fair number of poets, many were Scottish, including ; Edwin Morgan, Sorley MacLean, Hamish Henderson, Malcolm MacCleod, G S Fraser, George Campbell Hay. Some of these poems were originally written in Gaelic or Doric. Vernon Scannell was from Buckinghamshire but served with the 51st Highland Division, as did fellow poet John Jarmain from Shrewsbury.  Other poets who fought here included Spike Milligan and Keith Douglas.

In fact with was the North African campaign that gave rise to the most significant attempt to collect World War 2 poetry, the Cairo based 'Oasis Trust' that published its first anthology by service personnel in 1943 . This organisation was revived as the Oasis Salamander Trust which ran from 1976- 2012, and a whole series of anthologies resulted. Yet  war memoir has not defined later views of  the Desert War:  Keith Douglas 'Alamein to Zazem'  first appeared in 1946, two years after the poet's death in 1944. Vernon Scannell's 'Argument of Kings' ( 1987) and Spike Milligan's comic 'Rommel?'Gunner Who? A Confrontation in the Desert' (1976) also deservea mention. But no work steps up like 'The Cruel Sea ' does , a book that became a film, and contributed so much to how the Atlantic convoys are portrayed.

               There was an  understandable reluctance to glorify nature, reminding one of World War 2 Royal Navy serving writers such as Alan Ross and Nicholas Monsarrat  admitting that they hated the sea. War was not shown as somehow fracturing an otherwise rural idyll. The desert climate saw extremes of heat during the day and cold during the night. Sandstorms were a hazard, flies a major plague.

There was a lack of triumphalism evident in the Desert poetry. Hamish Henderson recalled a captured German soldier saying to him "Africa changes everything :In reality we are allies, and the desert is our common enemy."

               Sorley Maclean's 'Death Valley' , just as Keith Douglas in this poem 'Vergissmenicht' - was moved to write about a dead German soldier

Sitting dead in 'Death Valley'
below the Ruweisat Ridge,
a boy with his forelock down about his cheek
and his face slate-grey;

And in the last three verses stresses a shared affinity; the soldiers on both sides are sent to fight by those in power:

Was the boy of the band
who abused the Jews
and Communists, or of the greater
band of those

led, from the beginning of generations,
unwillingly to the trial
and made delirium of every war
for the sake of rulers?

Whatever his desire or mishap,
his innocence of malignity
he showed no pleasure in his death
below the Ruweisat Ridge.

Whilst John MacInes, writing about the Allied victory of El-Alamein in his poem of the same name,

That victory was not with price-
We paid for it with our hearts' blood;
We are leaving thousands prostrate
In graves in the dust of Alamein. 

Of course the contrast of the desert and home memories were marked in poetry; To return to Hamish Henderson, from the 'Second Elegy of  Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica',  there's a great passage showing a soldier portraying the harshness of nature shrinking into a stage set, as a way of somehow managing the ferocity of desert warfare. But such a respite can only last for an instant.

                       The dreamers remember
a departure like a migration. They recall a landscape
associated with warmth and veils and a pantomime
but never focused exactly. The flopping curtain
reveals scene-shifters running with a freshly painted
incongruous sets. Here childhood's prairie garden
looms like a pampas, where grown-ups stalk (gross outlaws)
on legs of tree trunk; recedes; and the strepitant jungle
dwindles to scruff or shrubs on a docile common,
all but real for a moment, then gone.

Many Thanks  for all their help
Richie McCaffrey
The Scottish Poetry Library

Further reading ' From the Line-Scottish War Poetry' edited David Goldie & Roderick Watson
                            (The Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2014) ..Quotes from poems were taken                                 from this work.
                            'Return to Oasis-War Poems &Recollections From the Middle East 1940-1946'
                             (The Salamander Oasis Trust, 1946)
                             'Scottish Poets in the Desert' Angus Calder, (article from 'Southfields 1999'

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Coventry 14th November 1940

           "The raiders first fired the medieval centre, crowned by its beautiful cathedral, which was gutted. They then poured hundreds of tones of bombs into the city, in an attack which lasted ten hours. Approaching one-third of the ctiy's houses were made uninhabitable, .....A hundred acres of the city centre were destroyed. Five hundred and fifty-four people were killed, eight hundred and sixty-five seriously wounded."
'The People's War Britain 1939- 1945' -Angus Calder

Painting of bombed Coventry Cathedral, November 1940 ~ by John Piper, 1940 


by John J.Rattigan, November 1940

Who can forget that night of death,
Wrought by the sky devil's fiery breath,
Who can forget that night of pain,
Dealt out by a madman's twisted brain.
We shall not forget as our homes we rebuild,
On bomb-scarred ground where innocent were killed,
We shall not forget as we look at the land,
Where once stood a building so stately and grand.
Even God's house is not safe from this Hun,
Who bombs and destroys at the setting of the sun.
So let him send over his cowardly hordes,
Who shatter the homes of paupers and Lords.
That night was severe, there is no doubt,
We had a hard blow, but they can't knock us out.
For our men are of steel, our women won't kneel,
Nor children for mercy plea.
A new hope will arise, when the world is free,
From the rubble and ashes of Coventry

( Not sure who owns the copyright to this work but quoted with kind permission from )

Particularly appreciate the defiance of the poem, the use of the term 'Hun' seems archaic.So much war poetry emphasises evokes the helplessness and hopelessness that war can generate, whilst this poem confronts the horror war but suggests rejuvenation. Along with the reminder of how air attack ensured that civilians could have direct experience of warfare.  The notion of a war poet being  on some mission to depict the 'pity of war' to pampered civilians was over, and bombs don't differentiate between the homes of rich and poor.

As we are now approaching Remembrance season, been thinking over the work of Alun Lewis, ( 1.July 1915- 5.March 1944). Serving as an Intelligence Officer  with the Royal Engineers, he died near Arakan , Burma in what his regimental history described as (being) "accidentally wounded by a pistol. " Lewis left only one collection published in his life time 'Raiders Dawn' (1942)

Vernon Scannell noted in his work 'Not Without Glory' (1976)
"He did not directly experience the terror, exultation, weariness and despair of battle and hammer out records of what he endured. He was a soldier-poet of a different kind; the reluctant unhappy warrior, suffering boredom, exasperation, loneliness, exile, frustration and anxiety, the civilian in uniform, fighting not the enemy in arms  but the debilitating longing for the lost peace, for comfort and love. He was in some ways the representative  poet of the Second World War."

This poem 'Peace'  is taken from 'Selected Poems of Alun Lewis' selected  by Jenny Hooker and Gweno Lewis with a foreword by Robert Graves. Graves's own son Ltn. (John) David Nicholson Graves, who like his father served with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, was killed in action near Arakan, on 18th March 1943.


"The wind blows
Through her eyes,
Snow is blanker
In her whiter thighs,
The birds are frantic with
Her last distress,
And flutter and chatter over
Her nakedness

And her blind
Eyes are prayers
Where she lives
By the boulders
The strong shoulders
Of the Earth
Who is kind
And harvest
Her prayers
And abideth
His time.

Destroyed is the well
Of her magic,
But where she lies silent
And tragic the earth
Pallid in reverie
Stirs with the birth
Of the flowers, the white
and the red that she gives,
The tendrils and swarming of all
That still lives, oh still lives ! 

And she comes from the dead,
Smiling without mystery,
Homeward slowly turning
Century by century,
And all the heart's deep yearnings
In her Being is burning, burning. "

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Beatrice Gibbs/ Alexandra Etheldreda Grantham

                                 Current Research Projects
                                 Beatrice Gibbs/ Alexandra Etheldreda Grantham 

                                                         Lancaster Bomber over Hamburg- picture in public domain .

Thought that it was time to expand about the purposes of this blog. As well as trying to highlight the  whole range of World War 2 poetry that is in danger of being overshadowed and forgotten, it's also important to encourage further research, trying to discover more about the lives of those who were writing poetry during World War 2.  Looking at two female poets , Beatrice Gibbs and Alexandra Etheldreda Grantham. 

The Bomber

"White moon setting and red sun waking.
White as a searchlight, red as a flame
Through the dawn wind her hard way making.
Rhythmless,riddled, the bomber came.

Men who had thought their last flight over,
All hoping, gone, came limping back.
Marvelling, looked on on bomb-scarred Dover.
Buttercup fields and white Down track.

Cottage and ploughland, green lanes weaving,
Working-folk stopping to stare overhead-
Lovely, most lovely, past all believing
To eyes of men new-raised from the dead. "

-Beatrice R. Gibbs.

( featured in  'Shadows of War- British Women's Poetry of the Second World War' edited and introduced by Anne Powell. 1999 ).

A poem that attracted me for its simplicity but also intrigued by the theme of a  bomber crew who are out causing havoc to the enemy , and facing colossal odds weighed against their own survival, find solace on reaching the Kent Downs upon their return. The last two lines are almost parodying a hymn with the repetition of 'lovely' and the reference to 'believing' and 'new raised from the dead' .

Beatrice R. Gibb was born in 1894, and is listed as a poet, writer of children's books, in the index of 'Shadows of War'.
So far have found little else about her but still searching.

Alexandra Etheldreda Grantham 

Have been liaising with Lucy London, who runs the excellent Female Poets of the First World War blog concerning   Alexandra Etheldreda Marie Sylvia Von Herder born  in Germany in 1870, : A specialist in Chinese history and art, with several books to her name . The biographical details in the  'Shadows of War' anthology .mention a marriage to Captain Frederick William Grantham. and for having the tragic distinction  of having two sons killed whilst serving, one in each World War.

From what I can establish her son  Ltn. Hugo Frederick Grantham,Third Battalion Essex Regiment, died at Gallipoli, on 28th June 1915, and is  buried at Twelve Tree Copse Cemetery. In 1915 Alexandra Grantham's collection 'Mater Dolorosa ' was published in 1915 and dedicated to his memory.

The second son  was Godfrey Harry Grantham, who was a pilot instructor in the RAF volunteer reserve and was killed  on 21st June 1942 aged 30 , Catherine Reilly, in her 'English Poetry of the Second World War a Bibliography' , suggested that perhaps  Godfrey was Alexandra Grantham's grandson, but the records available on Commonwealth War Graves Commission show that he was indeed her son.


"An hour ago or less this piteous tangled heap
Made up-of metal bits whose scattered fragments
Black trace of flames attacking it with dead leap
An hour ago.

Soared in the blue, triumphant like a star, sheer
Of silver on great wings spread in spirals
To rise and climb o'er midnight clouds of ice and

And he who swept it upwards- slain, never to
The harvest of his dreams, nor wondrous joys to
Of coming home, nor wake again. He laughed
   at sleep.
An hour ago."

( From the aforementioned anthology 'Shadows of War' , first appeared in  Alexandra Grantham's collection 'Godfrey Grantham' , published 1942 )

Again  I find the simplicity of the poem appealing. No attempt to write some epic, or to tell some daring truth about the War. A bleak but effective tribute to a son's memory written by a grieving mother.

Godfrey was buried at St. Wythan's churchyard . Repton, Derbyshire. The Repton Village World War 2 history group advise :

"Pilot Officer GODFREY HARRY GRANTHAM, 118749. Godfrey was the son of Capt. Frederick William Grantham (formerly of the Royal Munster Fusiliers) and Alexandra E. Grantham, of Abingdon, Berkshire. P/O Grantham died in Magister L8227 in a forced landing at Dalbury Lees/Trusley. His pupil Cpl G.P. Ward of the AAC was seriously injured. Godfrey was born 24 July 1911 and died 21 June 1942. His grave is a tombstone, embossed with the RAF crest and a carved portrait." 

Repton Village entry

Both Hugo Grantham and Godfrey Grantham are commemorated on the Barcombe, Sussex, Roll of Honour.  Not quite sure of their Sussex connection .

Barcombe Roll of Honour

Hoping to consult Alexandra Grantham's two collections ' Godfrey Grantham' (1942) and ' River Roundels' (1943) in the near future. Also to see if Godfrey Grantham's paintings are available .


Thursday, 22 September 2016

Henry Treece - 'Air Raid'

                                   Henry Treece -'Air Raid' 

   Graham Sutherland : bomb damaged buildings and twisted girders set against smoke and an evening sky.
 © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 893)

Was recently reading an anthology 'More Poems from the Forces By Serving Members Of the Navy, Army, and Air Force' edited by Keidrich Rhys from 1943 ' This Volume is dedicated to the U.S.S.R. 
Said anthology has some intriguing work such as Peter Hellings ( Aircraftman 2, R.A.F. ) 

(For the writers and artists of Europe who have been forced to leave their own countries )

" From distant lands
They have come, 
Across centuries held in the grip of murderous hands,
Leaving the bitter mirth
And the mock heroics of the drum
In the clear air
Of this town
A painter of men and women is caught in the flare
Of the great grief of the earth
Like workers breaking stone
For the blood and the bone 
Have returned
Life African fetishes or the burial of a nation's sun,
And under the threat of death
Pictures and books have been burned ......."

One aspect of World War 1 poetry that is not always very endearing is the indifference the acclaimed War Poets seem to demonstrate  towards the plight of  civilians- even refugees are rarely included in the 'pity of war' . The above poem-from World War 2- at least recognises displacement of artists .

Henry Treece, 22nd December 1911- 10th June 1966 , another RAF serving officer, depicted the unbearable tension of being caught in an air raid in a poem that also found its way into the above volume. So far have not established whether Treece himself flew on any bombing missions. His entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography isn't clear on this point - stating that he '"joined the volunteer reserve of the RAF in 1941, attaining the rank of flight lieutenant but serving mainly as an intelligence officer". Already an accomplished and published poet before the War,  and co-founder of the New Apocalypse movement,  Treece jointly edited a collection with John Pudney titled 'Air Force Poetry' , published in 1944.


" Here then a testament, drawn from my heart's black well
Like a bucket of blood;
It is still night and the steel birds hover
Over my paltry house on the hill,
Hover and hover. O will they fly over,
Away to the sea and let me lie still?
It is no food
This carrion hunts for; the hand on the lever
Knows no flesh's hunger; the pitiable kill
Is child at the body, or lover to lover
Counting the hours to a kindly future
In a house that can be over or under the hill
If this hell will but pass, and death cover his feature.

Have they gone then, away, and left body still breathing,
The clock on the wall?
The fire crackles gently, the door swings ajar,
The stairs with the ghost of a footstep are creaking.
Away at the coast the waiting guns fire,
At the shadow of death and his terrible speaking,
They turn again,
Re-seeking a prey, or retreating in fear,
Their heartless black hears a black litany croaking..
But there's only one hymn that we wait to hear,
And that is the Raider Past siren wailing....
It's morning again and the baby is teething,
There's a crack an inch wide in the drawing room ceiling. " 

One of the most surprising poems about air raids must be Dylan Thomas'  'Failure To Mourn the Death by Fire, of a Child ' , suggesting that the death of a child is a subject that is simply beyond words. Dylan Thomas was in London from 1940- 1944, taking the second from last verse. 

" The majesty and burning of the child's death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth." 

Other major poems dealing with Air Raids include ' Air Raid Across The Bay At Plymouth'  by Stephen Spender and 'Elegy on a City'  by Julian Symons.

Overall the 'War in the Air 'poetry has not considered to be of great significance : Perhaps the most famous example of this genre would be W.B. Yeats'  'An Irish Airman Foresees His Death' from 1919 with its staggering opening lines;

"I know that I shall meet my fate
 Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love ".....

I use the term 'perhaps' quite deliberately. W.B.Yeats generally opposed the writing of war poetry , and was famously dismissive of Wilfred Owen's work, but its hard to avoid detaching 'An Irish Airman....' from the category of 'War Poetry' even though the poem embodies individual detachment from colossal events.

There will be more on Henry Treece on this blog in the future, particularly his involvement in the Transformation anthologies, that appeared annually between 1943-1947, combining poetry, prose, drama and art.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Vernon Scannell -The neglected Prose and The Walking Wounded

                                                  Vernon Scanell

                                        Allied soldiers in North Africa campaign 1942, unable to trace the original source 

                            Vernon Scannell deserves the title of 'War Poet'  (1922- 2007) . Saw active service in North Africa and in the D Day campaign. He was what was euphemistically called a 'serial absconder' , i.e a deserter, who served time in a military prison, and spent several years on the run when World War 2.  His achievement including writing some superb poetry, and compelling auto-biography. 

Scannell also made a vital contribution to keeping interest in World War 2 poetry alive in his 1976 book ' Not Without Glory- The Poets of the Second World War' , though declined to give his own work a mention. 

His 1987 account of his war service- ' Argument of Kings' deserves as much as attention as Siegfried Sassoon's 'Memoirs of an Infantry Officer' , or Robert Graves ' Goodbye To All That'. 

This passage of 'Argument of Kings' , concerning his experience of the 1944 Normandy campaign, is a vital snapshot of being under enemy fire. 

" The fury of artillery is a cold mechanical fury but its intent is personal.When you are under fire you are its sole target. All of that shrieking, whining venom is directed at you and at no one else. You hunch in your hole in the ground, reduce yourself into as small a thing as you can become, and your harden your muscles in a pitiful attempt at defying the jagged, burning teeth of the shrapnel. Involuntarily you curl up into the foetal position except that your hands go down to protect your genitalia..."

'Argument of Kings ' supplants Scannell's earlier autobiography  'The Tiger and the Rose'  (1971) in offering more candid explanations of his desertion at Wadi Akarat, Tunisia,on   6th=7th April 1942  whilst serving with the 51st Highland Divisioan - using his Army name Private John Bain ;

"I just remember all those dead Seaforths lying out there, and our blokes going round, settling on them like fucking flies, taking their watches and wallets and Christ-knows-what and I just got up and walked. It was like a dream. Why didn't anybody stop me? I just floated down that fucking hill like a ghost or the invisible man." 

Scannell was soon caught and sentenced to three years imprisonment in a military jail. He kept silent about the incident and sentence until 1987. As well as the publication of  ' Argument of Kings' , Vernon Scannell was a guest on Radio 4 's Desert Island Discs, and disclosed his experiences. 

In 2013 two books were published which have added to a evaluation  of Scannell : 'Walking Wounded -The Life & Poetry of Vernon Scannell' by James Andrews Taylor, is a thorough examination of Scannell and goes into great detail about his war trauma which would now be called PTSD . Also his violent father, indifferent mother, his extensive drinking bouts which sometimes led to bar fights.....Scannell had spells as a professional boxer. Also Scannell's violence towards women he was involved with were depicted in some detail.  The second was 'Deserter -The Last Untold Story of the Second World War ' by Charles Glass, which drew on Scannell's prose and poetry quite sympathetically. 

                       'Walking Wounded '

                         " ....And then they came, the walking wounded
                         Straggling the road like convicts loosely chained.
                         Dragging at ankles exhaustion and despair.
                        Their heads were weighted down by last night's lead
                         And eyes still drank the dark. They trailed the night
                        Along the morning road. Some limped on sticks.
                        A few had turbaned heads, the dirty cloth
                        Brown-badged with blood. A humble brotherhood,
                        No one was suffering from a lethal hurt,
                        They were not magnified by noble wounds,
                        There was no splendour in that company.
                        And yet, remembering after eighteen years,
                        In the heart's throat a sour sadness stirs
                        Imagination pauses and return
                        To see them walking still, but multiplied
                        In thousands now .And when heroic corpses
                        Turn slowly in their decorated sleep.
                        And every ambulance has disappeared 
                        The walking wounded still trudge down that lane,
                         And when recalled they must bears arms again. "

Have reproduced the second half of the poem , first published in 1965 in an anthology of the name. The only one of Scannell's poems to make it into the Salamander Trust's 1995 anthology to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the VE day- 'The Voice of War -Poems of the Second World War' . 

I doubt that the poem needs much analysis. The 'Walking Wounded' are those who are deemed to have wounds that they can either recover from . They haven't become 'heroic corpses' and given 'decorated sleep' nor does time make the wounds better.  

The importance of Vernon Scannell's work  is that we need to be reminded again of the 'Pity of War'. to take a phrase from Wilfred Owen , when looking at World War 2. Understandably there's a huge body of opinion to maintain that the conflict was a 'just war'. There has not been the equivalent of 'disenchantment' like that there has been  against World War 1. It took decades for Scannell to be open about the scenes he saw in World War 2, whilst the writers and poets of World War 1 had a much stronger cultural and political impetus to depict their experiences ten years later.  A final word from Vernon Scannell from his collection 'The Winter Man' 

                         'Six Reasons for Drinking' 

                      "I drink to forget
                       But he remembers everything , the lot;
                       What hell war was,
                       Betrayal, lost
                       Causes Best Forgot ".

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Introduction -World War 2 Poetry

                        World War 2 Poets- Were there any ? 

                                        "Landing Artillery at Rendova Island, Solomons Group," by Aaron Bohrod.
                                                        (Army Art Collection) World  War II  -Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons  

                                     " The real always fades into the meaning
                                      From cone to thread some grave perception drives
                                      The twisted failures into vast fulfilments
                                      After the holocaust of shells and knives,
                                      The victory, the treaty, the betrayal,
                                      The supersesession of a million lives
                                      The hawk sees something stir among the trenches,
                                      The field mouse hears the sigh of what survives. "

                                      Alun Lewis ( 2nd Lieutenant , South Wales Borderers )
                                      Killed in an accident whilst on active service, March 1944
                                     'The Assault Convoy'- final verse .
                                     ' Selected Poems of Alun Lewis, - Jeremy Hooker and Gweno Lewis'

            'The War Poetry Review - Journal of the War Poets Association 2014--2015 ' features some excellent articles. One of the highlights is a feature 'War Poetry: A Conversation with Michael Longley, Andrew Motion and Jon Stallworthy -Edited by Santanu Das '.

Doctor Das raised the question :
"What then is 'war poetry' ? When does a poem become a 'war poem'? Are there particular pressures in writing war poetry' ? "

Michael Longley responded "First of all, it has to be a good poem. Tens, hundreds, thousands of poems were written in 1914-18, and most of them are ghastly  ...."

Jon Stallworthy's answer was " Yes, more than 2,000 poets- most of them were hopeless. I think we make too much of some of the minor poets of the First World War because they were fine courageous people. But not all their poems are as good. Many are less good than those of the underrated poets of the Second World War. "

First I was dismayed  when I read this. Their view seemed snooty and elitist . The concept of what makes a 'good' poem is incredibly loaded. I had been busy constructing a website and blog for the 'Great War at Sea Poetry' . Who would be qualified to judge what is a 'good ' poem in respect of  World War 1 at Sea? Is it the most literary ? Or a poem that confines to various technical forms ? A poem that reinforces  our preconceived ideas about the ethics of War? Perhaps a poem that seems to offer us authentic impressions of what it must have been like to be under fire?

Also wouldn't it be dishonest to weed out work written by such poets as 'Klaxon' and Captain , later Admiral Hopwood ,  because their work would not meet with approval today on the basis of their patriotism and 'triumphalism' , and seemingly ignoring the horror of war? They were examples of what was circulating and popular at the time.

But after a time I came round to the point of view expressed in the article, albeit from a different angle. Not because World War 1 poetry is so 'hopeless'  or 'ghastly' , but simply because the more World War 2 poetry I read, the more impressive it is. Offering both literary quality and an insight to the dilemma of how an individuals deals with something to massive, ferocious and impersonal as World War 2.

Michael Bully
3rd September 2016

Great War at Sea Poetry website

Great War at Sea Poetry Blog

War Poets Association

A Letter To The Moon

     love dances under mountains
    where never the waves fall

    her arms are columns of memory
     o spell this wilful liberty
    for sailors clad in weed

   how can she ever be proud?

   tell these tears like beads
   for airmen bridling the sky

  their faces are broken cloud

  and bind up the branches of slaughter
  for soldiers in shackles of water

  whose scythe flows over history ?

  whole armies march under seas'
 crumpled up horizon

 my eyes are drowned in dice

 a whirlwind strikes     owls freeze
swords fall out of the sun

 "who'll carves the rose from the ice?"

 in a helmet plumed with fountains
the hero shouts in the hall "

J.F. Hendry , (Cadet , Intelligence Corps)
'More Poems from the Forces
 A Collection of Verses By Serving Members of the Navy, Army and Air Force 
Edited by Keidrych Rhys  , published 1943